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Ahead of the learning curve

by Dan-Dorian Druhora
Janet Williams handles a python in her science class.
Janet Williams handles a python in her science class.

It’s interesting to imagine what Janet Williams MAT ’10 might say when one of her middle schoolers asks, “Mrs. Williams, what did you do before you were a teacher?”

Before walking the hallways of 8 Points Charter School in Jacksonville, Ill., high-fiving her students, Williams was taking roll call inside the Illinois prison system as a corrections officer and dietary supervisor.

Looking back on her experience in one of the world’s most dangerous work places, she said, “I saw how many inmates could not read at fourth grade level and how excited they were to learn to read.”

In fact, prison was where her teacher training began and where she first saw the impact of a diversified, individualized learning approach that would later form the blueprint of her teaching philosophy.

Because Williams was aware that the learning curve for teachers was particularly steep, she enrolled in the online Master of Arts in Teaching program at the USC Rossier School of Education.

“The opportunity to see education at the cutting edge from a university that leads the way in almost every form of education was priceless. [Actually] it was pretty expensive but worth it.”

Williams currently teaches science to middle schoolers at an Illinois charter school, which opened its doors less than a year ago. Originally hired as a social studies teacher, she was soon thrown into a lab coat because of her “strong classroom management skills” and to “put the equipment to good use.”

It’s a fair concern to worry about how new teachers, such as Williams, will perform in some of the nation’s most challenging classrooms, especially where resources are scarce. But it’s this kind of challenge and demanding professional versatility that she’s been preparing for at USC and perhaps her entire life. She has to rethink each lesson, from class to class, as well as from year to year, and to adjust her lesson plans according to the students in each class.

Between making sure her middle schoolers don’t cause an explosion in the lab and raising two teenage grandchildren, she also works part time as an adult degree completion coordinator at a private college. And just when you’d think she can’t fit any more on her plate, she’s starring in a theatre production of Don’t Drink the Water, which opens this month in Jacksonville. “This is my fun time. My for-myself-time,” she said.

Williams, who has courageously decided on a mid-career switch, brings the sort of risk-taking optimism and working-world experience that can be critical in a classroom. She believes the MAT program at USC has helped her navigate through the culture shock that professionals often experience when they confront the classroom, an experience that requires immediate adaptability.

“The differentiated learning was the one skill I learned in the MAT program that has helped me the most and I suspect will help me most in the future.”

Since many private-sector professionals come to teaching from better-paying careers, a passion for the job is critical.

“The cost of teaching includes buying incentives, supplies and taking time away from family, along with the responsibilities of nurse, counselor, behavioral specialist and the ever-looming standardized tests,” Williams said. “The love of teaching and watching students learn is a joy that surpasses all of this.”

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