A State Grooms Its Best Students to Be
The New York Times
By MICHAEL WINERIP
Published: October 2, 2011
DURHAM, N.C. — When Mr. Williams
means business, he is not kidding around. “He’s pretty quiet, pretty serious,” said Ashabur Rahman, a fifth grader at Glenn Elementary School who has him for math and science.
John Williams III, 36, is not some jokey
teacher. “At the start of the year, some kids said he was going to be the meanest teacher in the school,” said Trajen Womack. Chelsea Parra, heard the same: “A lot of people were saying it.”
Nor is he easy about giving out 1’s, the top grade. “If we’re joking, he doesn’t say
anything, but on the progress report, he’ll give you a 3,” Trajen said.
Still, the more time they spent with Mr. Williams, the smarter he seemed to get. In
science, they made terrariums, growing rye, mustard and alfalfa. There is no running
water in the trailer behind the school where Mr. Williams teaches, so he carries it in, using jugs. This week, the students will add crickets and rolly-pollies to their
He always calls them ladies and
gentlemen, and speaks so softly that they
must be quiet to hear him; even a little noise sounds loud in Mr. Williams’s room.
Last week, during a lesson on common denominators, a new boy began tapping on his desk. Mr. Williams ignored it and kept teaching. The boy sat on the floor, twirled a
ruler and wandered around talking to other students. Mr. Williams kept teaching. When the boy could no longer be ignored — he
knocked over a chair — Mr. Williams made
eye contact with a special education teacher, who took over the class. Mr. Williams went and sat by the boy.
In a voice so quiet that Citlaly Reynoso, who was sitting next to them, could not hear, he talked to the boy for several minutes. Then Mr. Williams took over the class again, and the boy pulled out a workbook and started answering questions.
Later Mr. Williams, who has spent 14 years teaching poor children, said: “I want to do everything I can to keep that child in class. If he’s sitting in the principal’s office, he’s not learning.”
In 1993, when Mr. Williams graduated from
high school in Goldsboro, N.C., with an A average and a 1,320 on his SATs, he had many options, but he chose the North
Carolina Teaching Fellows Program. The
idea is simple: the state pays top academic
students to attend a public college, and in return they spend at least four years teaching in a public school.
In the 20 years since the first fellows began teaching, the program has flourished. High school seniors selected for the program average about 1,200 on the SATs
compared with a state average of 1,000. Of the 500 fellows chosen each year, about a quarter are black or Hispanic.
Mr. Williams said that once he was accepted, colleges competed for him. “They woo you like an athlete,” he said. “We got
the star treatment.”
It is not enough for the smartest to become teachers; they have to stay teaching. Research has shown that experienced teachers perform far better than beginners. A Carolina Institute for Public Policy study
by Gary T. Henry, Charles Thompson and Kevin Bastian in 2010 found that of a dozen
training programs in the state, Teach for
America had the best test results, with the Teaching Fellows Program second.
There is, however, a large difference in retention. Teach for American requires only a two-year commitment. After five years, 7 percent of the Teach for America
participants were still at work in North
Carolina, versus 73 percent of the fellows. Sixty percent of the fellows who started teaching 20 years ago still work in North Carolina public schools.
Representative David E. Price, Democrat of North Carolina, tried for years to get Congress to pass legislation using the Teaching Fellows Program as a national model, and finally succeeded a few years ago. But financing has been limited. New York, one of 12 states that won a grant, received enough money to prepare only 125 teachers over five years.
It is a pretty good bet that any program that treats teachers like star athletes is not going to last. A few months ago, as part of hundreds of millions of dollars in cuts, the North Carolina General Assembly voted to phase out the fellows program — which has
a $13 million annual budget — over the
next few years. (There have been reports
that the House speaker, Thom Tillis, a
Republican, is reconsidering; his office did not respond to several calls and e-mails.)
It may not matter. Budget cuts have been so severe, pretty soon no one is going to be able to afford to teach. Anthony White, 26, another fellow, has been a math teacher for
five years at Southern High School here.
Like Mr. Williams, he had his choice of jobs but chose a school that serves a poor black neighborhood, a place where he felt that his work would stand for more. “Coming up,” Mr. White said, “I never had a black male math teacher.”
When Mr. White started, he was making $35,000, and five years later he is still making $35,000.
It has been said before: no one goes into teaching for the money, and any glory is
Last spring, when Mr. Williams was named
Teacher of the Week by WRAL-TV in the
Raleigh-Durham area, the reporter referred
to him as “a humble John Williams.”
Most of the great things that teachers do
are not seen by adults, and are taken for granted by children.
The new boy in Mr. Williams’s class closed the workbook after a few minutes and put his head on the desk. A guidance counselor had warned Mr. Williams to be on guard; the boy’s father had died the week before. When everyone filed out for recess, Mr.
Williams held him back and spoke to him gently. The boy kept his back to him the entire time. When Mr. Williams told him to go play, the boy walked away backward, stopping at the bottom of a grassy hill that leads to the playground.
Mr. Williams moved up the hill a little and the boy followed, then stopped. Mr. Williams walked up a little more, the boy
followed and stopped. From a distance, it looked like Mr. Williams was tugging him up the hill with an invisible rope.
Dressed in a bow tie, stylish shirt and
creased pants, Mr. Williams looked thoroughly out of place on that hill. With one final tug, he got the boy to the top. For a while, the boy stood with his back to everyone, then for no apparent reason he ran off, disappearing into the crowd of excited, noisy children.
Mr. Williams made his way back down the hill slowly, so as not to trip. When he got to
the bottom, he said, “Hopefully, he’s out there enjoying himself.”