Connections: Linking Talented Educators
Connections: Linking Talented Educators

Spotlight: Nick Williams (CA '15)

January 22, 2016

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Looking for an easier way to remember the stages of mitosis, Nick Williams (CA '15) started writing science-themed rap songs and created MC Dub, his alter ego, to perform them for students. He received his Milken Educator Award at San Marin High School in Novato on November 18, 2015.

Milken Family Foundation: How did you end up in the classroom?

Nick Williams: I think I always knew I wanted to be a teacher in the back of my mind, but it was something I had to justify to myself since it didn't have as much prestige as some other career choices. When I was in college, I worked every summer as a counselor at St. Dorothy's Rest Summer Camp in Northern California. It opened my eyes to how fun and rewarding it could be to work with young people and got me well on my way to make the decision to get into education. Then, at the end of college, I met my wife, who's a kindergarten and first-grade teacher. I realized that everything that I loved and respected about her was interwoven into her profession and that made me want to finally take the leap and pursue teaching as a career.

MFF: What was your first job ever?

Nick: Working at the snack bar of the pool at a really fancy country club in Oakland, where I grew up. I was making burgers, serving ice cream, etc. I'm not sure that it gave me a lot of lessons that I carry today, but it did give me the chance to interact with a pretty diverse group of people, from the wealthy members of the club to the nannies and other employees working there. I learned a lot from other high school and college jobs working as a farmhand and a camp counselor. Camp gave me a huge skill set that I still use in the classroom: how to make kids feel welcome, make work feel like play, engage creativity, and find the intelligence in every person.

MFF: Who was your own most memorable teacher?

Nick: My 10th-grade AP Biology teacher, Tim Newman. He was (is) brilliant. He set up the whole class as an "adventure." When we were studying genetics, he'd dress up as Gregor Mendel and give "guest" lectures in an accent. He was able to do this and have fun and still keep things incredibly rigorous. I think I spent all of spring break that year working on practice problems for biology, but it was the class that showed me I was interested in science.

MFF: What was your first year of teaching like?

Nick: My first class was during my student teaching. I went to UC Davis School of Education and they have a spectacular program where they encourage student teachers to take over their student teaching classroom on the first day of school and teach that class all year long. I took over a biology class in Sacramento.

There was a lot to remember that first year. One day, a girl came in before class began and started punching a boy (he'd been harassing her earlier in the day). I was totally frozen and my master teacher had to step in, separate them, and get them out of class. The hardest thing about the first year was trying to figure out how to find the time to plan everything well enough, and then be okay when, inevitably, it didn't go as well as I had imagined it would.

During my student teaching experience, a student was shot and killed just off the corner of campus of the school at which I was teaching. For the next week, gang colors were flying, everyone felt a bit unsafe, and tension was really high on campus and in class. It was really hard to feel like I was losing that first class as a community, and hard to try to find a way to repair those relationships and get the class back on track. It was a good reminder that schools are part of a community and we're dependent on the health of that community to function.

Everything about my first year of teaching took me by surprise. Like most people, I thought that I understood education pretty well because I had been to school as a student, but teaching opened my eyes to all of the details and intricacies of education. I think the biggest realization is that there were tons of students who weren't me and who had a vastly different school experience from the one I had. For lots of students, school wasn't fun and it was mostly just a struggle.

MFF: You’re known for integrating music, specifically rap, into your lessons. How does it help your students?

Nick: When I was at camp, another counselor and I had a bit in our talent show where one of us would make a beat with a kazoo while the other guy rapped over the top of it, usually about how hard it was to rap and how nothing was rhyming right. The idea was to show kids that enthusiasm was great, even if you weren't excellent at something yet. There was also Mr. Newman, my AP Biology teacher who dressed up as famous scientists. When I started teaching, I put those two together and created an alter ego who could come in and perform science raps to help students remember key concepts. The first one I put together was about the stages of mitosis since they all sound similar and I can't remember them unless they're in lyrics. My "good friend" MC Dub comes in only once every month or two (I think he was in class for no more than 10 minutes last semester), but he's a part of the class that really grabs students' attention, gets them excited about school and science, and gives us something to have a little inside joke about.

MFF: A student is thinking about a career in education. How do you convince him/her?

Nick: I think the best convincing is how much I enjoy being in class every day and how much fun I hope it looks like I'm having as they're learning. Teaching is a great profession and gives you the opportunity to positively impact the lives of people on a daily basis. It's also tremendously challenging and lets you solve problems. If you're teaching well, you'll never have a boring day.

MFF: What impact do you think your Milken Educator Award presentation had on students at your school?

Nick: I think it was great. The students' reaction to the presentation was more than I could have possibly imagined. The only time I've heard that gym louder and more excited was when we beat a nationally ranked team to win the basketball championship. Now, a couple of months later, I think it's energized the school. It's given us something to live up to and a point of pride as to how great we can be.

MFF: What’s your favorite time of the school day?

Nick: The beginning of my first class of the day. The whole school day is still in front of us, I get to see my students again, and we have the opportunity to start right back where we left off. Every once in a while I get really lucky, and students come in and get started on their project before class starts and then I can just let class run without ever giving instructions to the whole class. Those are the best days, when students are so excited about their work that they take control of it and I get to talk with groups individually, ask guiding questions, and give advice while they work.

MFF: If someone gave you a million dollars to use in your classroom or school, what would you do with it?

Nick: We've got some really cool science classes, but I'd love to have a makers space on campus (for both digital and physical design) to which teachers of all subject areas could bring their classes so students could engineer, design experiments, and analyze data right on campus.

MFF: When you retire, what do you want your former students and colleagues to say about you in their speeches at your going-away party?

Nick: "He was kind, energetic, enthusiastic, cared about us as people, and we learned a ton. He made a positive impact on my life."

MFF: If you hadn’t chosen a career in education, what would you be doing right now?

Nick: I can't imagine a career outside of education. Before getting into education, I wanted to do research science, but the lack of social interaction was too much for me. I'd probably end up getting into medicine or engineering of some kind.

MFF: Finish this sentence: "I know I’m succeeding as an educator when..."

Nick: "...students have ownership of the work that they're doing and are proud of the projects they're creating."


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