Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask educators who’ve been recognized for their work how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in the series here.
Marla Williams has attended birthday parties. She’s visited students in the hospital when they were sick. She’s shown up at family reunions. She’s gone to baptisms. She’s taken student laundry home to be washed.
These aren’t part of her job responsibilities, but for this woman who’s been teaching students with special education needs for 19 years, it is central to her ability to connect with students and their families.
“My job does not always consist of a 7:30 a.m. to 2:40 p.m. school day,” said Williams, who got her start in education as a teacher’s aide and now works at Davison Elementary-Middle School. “I spend time with my students outside of my classroom.”
Williams got the shout-out of her career earlier this year, when she was invited to attend Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s State of the State address. During that speech, Whitmer referred to Williams as an “incredible educator” who “changes lives for the better every day.”
“She is known as a tireless advocate for her students,” Whitmer said. “In class, Marla ensures that her special ed students have all the same opportunities as their peers. But her work doesn’t stop when the bell rings at the end of the day.”
Williams said she will never forget the standing ovations she received during that address.
“I really felt appreciated, honored and humbled, all rolled into one,” Williams said. “I believe it was at that moment that I realized everything I had previously invested in my students secretly afforded me this opportunity to be rewarded openly.”
Williams spoke to Chalkbeat recently about that moment, about her teaching career and about the students she loves so much.
This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.
Was there a moment when you decided to become a teacher?
I started out as a teacher’s aide in February 1998. At the time I was working with children who were physically and mentally impaired. I worked with a teacher, and one day she pulled me aside and said, “Marla, you are too young to be changing diapers and feeding children your whole life.”
I applied to Wayne State, received my bachelor’s degree in general education and mental impairment. and then my master’s degree in early childhood education. I’ve only taught students with special needs.
How do you get to know your students?
At the same time I’m getting to know my students, I’m also getting to know their parents, their extended family. I introduce myself, I let them know I’m a mother and a teacher. I invite them to come to my class anytime. I tell them to just show up. I invite them to volunteer in the classroom.
I like to encourage my students. Some of them come from broken homes, sometimes deplorable conditions. I like to work with the whole child, the emotional and social standpoint. I like to first build their self-esteem before I can get to their academics. I have what we call a classroom family environment. I treat my students the same way I treat and raise my daughters. I’m a big promoter of teaching morals and values and nurturing the children.
Tell us about a favorite lesson to teach. Where did the idea come from?
I did a thematic unit on Disneyland. We were talking about what the kids did during their summer break. One kid said he went to Canada. The other children were so engrossed in what he was saying. But they couldn’t relate. Many of them had not been out of their neighborhoods.
I asked, if there was anywhere you would like to go, in your imagination, where would you go. The majority screamed Disneyland. So I said, let’s plan a vacation to Disneyland, so you know what it takes to go. I split them into groups. They researched what kind of activities they could do, hotel and accommodations and fundraising.
They did their presentations, and when they finished, there was a knock on the door. I had a Mickey Mouse character come. They were blown away. And then we had lunch with Mickey Mouse.
Why was this a favorite lesson?
It allowed the kids to really use their imagination to actually convince themselves that I believe I can do this. They were able to come outside of the box and realize there was more outside of their neighborhood. And see the excitement — it made a difference in their lives.
What object would you be helpless without during the school day?
Technology, definitely. I have some children who have a difficult time holding a pencil and writing. They do much better with the keyboard. They can type their answers. They like to use the mouse and do interactive activities online. Kids these days are really technology savvy, and not so much books and pencil savvy.
What part of your job is most difficult?
I lost a child once, and that was really devastating. That was years ago, when I was an aide. He wasn’t able to walk. They said he would never walk. One day, we were rolling a ball back and forth and the ball rolled out of the room. And the kid pulled himself up on the wall, held up on the wall and walked (to get the ball). I was amazed. Later on, when I became a teacher, his family contacted me and said Anthony had passed.
The other hard thing is that because I teach kindergarten to fifth grade, a lot of my kids will stay with me (for years) until they reach fifth grade. The hardest part is when they move on to middle school. That separation is really hard at the end of the school year.
What was your biggest misconception that you initially brought to teaching?
School was a struggle for me. And I wondered if I would truly be able to educate these children and give them what they need to be successful. I am grateful that I have been able to do just that. Since teaching, I’ve come to the realization that if you can meet children where they are, you can bring them to where you expect them to be.
The blessing is that not only do I see the growth, but they see the growth in themselves. A couple of years ago, I had my first and only student enter the spelling bee. He did very good. Out of 35 kids, he ended up being number seven.
How did your own struggles as a child help you relate to your students?
It humbles me. And it gives me patience to be able to work with the kids and take my time. I know firsthand what that feels like, being afraid to raise your hand.
What’s the best advice you’ve received about teaching?
The best advice I received as a teacher was to develop good relationships with all the staff especially the cafeteria and janitorial staff. They are also hard workers, resourceful and just as needful as the teaching staff, yet they are not included in school activities nor acknowledged for the services they render.
The governor described you as a teacher who is a tireless advocate for her students. Tell me why that’s so important to you?
It is important to me because I believe that children with special needs are entitled to every opportunity that a general education child is entitled to. I advocate for my students to participate in school programs and social activities, field trips and school assemblies. They appreciate every opportunity and that is what makes it all worthwhile. My job does not always consist of a 7:30 a.m. to 2:40 p.m. school day. I spend time with my students outside of my classroom. Attending birthday parties, baptisms, shopping for some of their needs, washing their clothes, driving by their homes hoping to see them outside playing during summer break to check on them and the list goes on.