By Sharon Kebschull Barrett, first published by EducationNC, September 22, 2021
Jimmel Williams knows great teachers. After all, he is one, with the student results to show for it. But last fall, he says now, his teaching fell short.
With his Charlotte students all learning remotely, his efforts felt off, though he couldn’t fully put his finger on what wasn’t working. He kept making changes each week to get students more engaged in their learning, but the tweaks weren’t enough. Finally, he realized what he needed — to both take tighter control and give some up.
In spring 2020, I talked with Williams, an eighth-grade math expanded-impact teacher at Northwest School for the Arts, shortly after COVID-19 sent his students home for the year. This spring, with the 2020–21 school year wrapping up, we talked again about what he learned about his teaching and himself when he started with a new crop of 160 students last fall.
“I was extremely robotic initially, and what I mean by robotic is, I organized the classroom [in September] with pretty much no room for socialization and collaboration, because I felt like with math I had to kind of get to the point, teach the concept. It became old-school,” he said.
When COVID-19 first sent students home, Williams saw success with creating instructional videos, so he kept making more in the fall. Students would watch a quick video, take a quiz, and then have asynchronous time to work. But their interactions with him were too limited, and the workload too much.
“I revamped the whole class. Instead of doing an on-and-off type thing where they had synchronous and asynchronous, they were with me the entire class,” Williams said. “We also just incorporated times to talk — times for me to be my natural self.”
‘Ok, beloved, I get it.’
For Williams, being his “natural self” means sharing his own difficult childhood with his students, many of whom face huge obstacles of poverty, homelessness, pregnancy, abuse, violence, and low expectations from adults. It means holding students to high expectations — but adjusting what that means in a pandemic. And, always, it means showing students that even when those expectations feel tough, he truly cares.
That was especially important for his students — predominantly students of color — given the past year’s news cycles that included the murder of George Floyd and the January 6 insurrection.
“The kids that were going through some of the more traumatic situations, I was able to tell them, ‘OK, beloved, I get it. I have living proof and receipts … let me show you what I did, and what I had to live through.’”
He has always used a variety of uplifting mantras with his students such as “be encouraged”; this year, he expanded those to daily affirmations and stories.
“I started every day with a story about a student or a story about an experience,” he said. “I talked to them every day for about five to 10 minutes about something very specific and then linked that into a class that had time for the kids not only to interact with me, but also interact with each other.”
He would teach briefly, have students do a few problems, and then put them in working groups for collaboration, for a few minutes at a time.
“I would call on a group and I would say, ‘One of the members of your group needs to speak,’ and would just tell them to ‘speak with authority’” — another typical Williams saying — or have students count down and then respond at once.
“I think making them interact with me was the best thing that I could have ever done, and then also, giving them opportunities to talk about things that were not math-related during almost every single class was also something to kind of keep them there.”
‘I am taking it personally.’
By the second semester, he said, his classes were the best-attended at the school, which made him proud given the rough start. “Toward the middle of the year, everybody was there, and everybody was doing better in everything.”
Students had the option to return to the classroom — in rotating groups — in late February, and student results on end-of-course tests showed the power of in-person teaching, he said. In one class, all but one student who came into school passed, unlike those who stayed remote. In an honors class (where in a normal year his students have a 100% passing rate), nearly all passed, but there too, he found it hard to reach the struggling remote students.
The higher failure rate among his remote students eats at him.
“That tells me something, but I’m still reflecting. I did take my course personally, like I think a lot of good teachers do. [Others] say, ‘Oh, you can’t be responsible, or feel responsible about kids not passing that were remote’ … but at the same time I feel like, yeah, I’m taking it hard, and I am taking it personally.’ “
He takes some comfort in how much growth all students in that class still showed, with 92% demonstrating learning growth. For example, he had some students projected to grow to just the sixth percentile who ended up at the 59th percentile. But of course, he’s quick to note, that’s still failing.
“So for me, I admit it was a struggle, it was a mental struggle. The remote people, though, had I not changed the structure of my class, I think it would have been a lot worse. A lot worse.”
Having students feel heard while not allowing them to wallow or use the pandemic as an excuse became a balancing act, Williams said. Using another of his daily phrases — “Love yourself enough to do right by you at all times” — he continued to try to point them toward success.
Students in his most struggling class, who have a history of failing — and who, he said, considered themselves the “throwaways” — became his favorites as he figured out how to get them engaged through building personal relationships in which he opened up about his own failures, including his pandemic weight gain. He had them hold him accountable for losing weight by weighing himself on camera — and ultimately losing nearly 100 pounds, showing his students the power of another of his sayings, to “speak it into existence” after previously believing he could not lose it.
‘I have a plan.’
Williams also saw how much more engaged students were when they had their cameras on, but the school did not require this. Eventually, he bought 400 green posters for students to use as green screens, so they could be visible without others seeing their home environments.
That allowed him to renew some of his favorite teaching methods, such as “motions” in which students chant math formulas or definitions with hand motions to accompany them (as seen in this video).
As students reached out to him about their struggles, Williams realized that in some cases he could assign less work than usual and still have students succeed, with time for conversation and relationship building, and he could become more of a facilitator of their learning. He focused far more on relooping and reteaching, introducing math terms and concepts well before their applicable unit in the curriculum, and repeatedly returned to concepts, to help students overcome distractions.
“I feel like next year if anything happens, we’ll be ready. I have a plan,” he said, for both instructional approaches.
“The plan includes being real with them, talking with them about what’s going on, not necessarily always being focused on your agenda and having this plan that we’re going to be done with this unit by next Friday,” he said. “I think it’s just the basics of teaching and making sure that you are reevaluating every day.”