Name: Bob Williams
Award: 2009 Alaska Teacher of the Year
Teaching Since: 1987
Studying at Walden: PhD in Public Policy and Administration
In 1986, Bob Williams graduated college with a degree in petroleum engineering and was ready to enter a job in the oil industry in his native Alaska. But it wasn’t meant to be. The price of oil was plummeting and jobs were increasingly scarce. He worked for a few years as an unskilled laborer for the Union Oil Company of California but ultimately longed to do something more fulfilling.
“I just happened to be at the University of Alaska, Anchorage. I was standing around waiting to meet someone when I saw a Peace Corps booth. They asked me what I was studying. I said, “Oh, I already have a degree, but it doesn’t matter because I know you guys don’t go and drill for oil.” She said, “Well, you could possibly teach math in West Africa.” I looked at her and I knew instantly that that’s exactly what I wanted to do.”
Williams fell in love with teaching math during his Peace Corps stint working with kids at a rural technical school in a remote village in The Gambia. From there, he went to teach high school in the wilds of New York City. Then after another stretch teaching Siberian Yupik Alaskan natives in small whaling villages on Saint Lawrence Island, Williams ended up back in his hometown of Palmer, Ak. For the last 4 years he’s been at Palmer’s Colony High School.
No matter where he’s teaching, Williams has a knack for making math come alive for students. At Colony, he’s instituted an annual math assembly held on or around March 14, aka 3/14" a date known as Pi Day because it is the first three digits of the number pi. At the assembly, students present math projects they’ve created; perform chants about sines, cosines, and hypotenuses; and put on original skits based on mathematical concepts. At the end, everyone gets a king-sized bag of M&M’s, weighing, of course, exactly 3.14 ounces.
“It’s a time to celebrate mathematics,” Williams says. “Some kids are scared of math. They want an easier route. But I think when you share with them the opportunities that mathematics opens up, and also help them see the doors that it closes if you stay away from it, they come on in.”
It’s this kind of enthusiasm and creative thinking that earned Williams the honor of being named Alaska’s 2009 Teacher of the Year. He is now working toward a PhD in Public Policy and Administration at Walden University. One area of focus in his current studies is the role of classroom teachers’ creativity, insight, and perseverance in turning around the state of education in this country.
“I’m shocked that there’s a lot of major things that are happening without the teacher’s voice,” he says. “I’ve been reading reports on teacher effectiveness and teacher quality that don’t make a lot of sense to me” things like looking at the ACT scores of teachers when they were in high school and trying to find something meaningful from that information. The people on the panels of these reports are policy-makers, university professors, politicians. I’m an effective teacher because I put a lot of time and effort into working with parents, building rapport with students, and working as part of a team with my colleagues. It has nothing to do with what my ACT scores were 25 years ago. Sometimes in the research” and the data and panels and reports” that come out about teaching, there are big gaps in what truly makes a difference. I believe that when you leave teachers out of the process, the end product suffers.”