2023 OnPoint Prize Educator of the Year Willie Williams opens minds in the classroom, on the field—and with gumbo

It was “kind of an accident” that Willie Williams got into teaching—but the students who nominated him know it was no accident that he won the 2023 Prize for Excellence in Education 9-12 Educator of the Year Award, which pays the rent or mortgage of grand prize winners for one year.

The beloved educator—currently in his first year as Athletic Director at Portland’s Roosevelt High School—was grateful to be nominated. “I told my students that when I found out they nominated me for this award, I felt like I had won already, no matter who won the grand prize.”

His dedication to his students in the classroom and on the football field, as well as his passion for his craft, has made a lasting mark and opened their eyes to what’s possible.

And the “life-changing” OnPoint Prize has only reinforced his commitment to showing students—and his children—an example of what they can accomplish.

An unexpected journey—with lasting results.

“Teaching was nowhere near my radar,” Williams says, before an opportunity to teach undergraduate classes as a teaching assistant kick-started a career spanning more than 10 years. His passion for learning, serving the community, and investing in the lives of students has taken him from his native Louisiana (Baton Rouge and New Orleans) to Portland.

His roles have ranged from coaching football to teaching History, Government, Economics, and Ethnic Studies, advising the Black Student Union, and teaching with Upward Bound, an online course for first-generation college students through Loyola University in New Orleans.

No matter the role, Williams has left a lasting impact on the students he’s mentored, taught and coached.

  • “As a student, I can immediately tell if my teacher is passionate about what they are talking about. I can tell without a doubt that Mr. Williams deeply cares about what he is teaching.”
  • “Coach … invests personal time in every single one of his athletes, or as he calls us, student-athletes, with emphasis on students. He manages to pull the best out of people, whether that’s during a football game or while they’re writing an assessment.”
  • “He has the ability to reach everyone and connect to them in their personal way. Coach Williams has always made sure to make everyone feel welcomed, engaged and encouraged in class.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Williams adapted to his students’ diverse needs and circumstances by providing flexible deadlines, accommodating individual learning styles, and adjusting teaching methods to suit the online learning environment.

A focus on learning experiences that include everyone.

Knowing that no single teaching methodology works for every student, Williams uses a variety of strategies to connect with every student, finding joy in “reaching the unreached: those students who feel out of place, outnumbered, and rejected.”

Williams focuses on instilling a sense of respect and inclusivity in students by providing insight into the experience of underrepresented groups. His lessons get students thinking critically about history, and he has invited state representatives to help his students better understand government systems.

His favorite part of the job? Watching every student grow and develop critical thinking skills.

Teaching beyond the textbooks.

Dedicated to expanding horizons, Williams encourages students to actively participate in classroom discussions by asking questions and sharing their opinions, especially around current events.

By constantly reminding them to be informed citizens of our society by knowing what’s happening around them, Williams encourages critical thinking about issues of equity and social justice, and creates opportunities for students to take action and make a positive difference in their communities.

The joy of diversity tastes like king cake.

Willie-OnPoint-Prize-WinnerCreating a classroom environment that is welcoming and inclusive is a top priority for Williams. This can involve setting expectations for respectful communication and behavior, celebrating cultural and ethnic diversity, and creating opportunities for students to share their experiences.

And Williams walks the walk, teaching his students all about Mardi Gras and introducing them to the taste sensation that is king cake. He also set a new standard for going above and beyond when he cooked Louisiana gumbo for 1,500 people at Roosevelt’s annual cultural celebration. “By the end of Fat Tuesday, [the students] are smitten with the deliciousness of my gumbo and hooked to the sweetness of our king cake.”

Setting an example for the future generations.

Williams described the OnPoint Prize in one word: “Life-changing.”

When it comes to the prize’s impact, Williams is grateful for what it represents—recognition of the importance and value of education and his work—as well as what it means to him personally. “I have five children, and this check will directly influence their lives. Huge help. I never thought in a million years that something like this would happen. And it did.”

As to his children? He hopes the prize sets a standard for their educational adventures, because if their dad can do it, so can they.

Providing recognition to local educators.

Today’s teachers face many challenges. Lingering safety issues from the pandemic and uncertain economic conditions apply additional stresses to an already demanding career.

Do you know a teacher who has made an impact like that of Willie Williams? All the hard-working teachers in our community deserve recognition, and everyone can point back to a teacher who impacted their child’s education in a positive way. The OnPoint Prize is one way to bring that recognition to a teacher you know.

Nominations are now open for the 2024 OnPoint Prize for Excellence in Education. The prize awards $193,000 to local educators and their schools, with the grand prize winners having their mortgage or rent paid for one year, as well as a donation made to their school. Nominate a teacher you care about by April 9, 2024.

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