Learn more about the 2020-2021 New Jersey County Teachers of the Year:

What is your name & job title?

Megan Williams
High School French Teacher

Do you love your job? What do you love about it?

Yes, I do love my job. On a personal and academic level, I love that with my job, I never get to stop learning. With every topic my students and I investigate together, it is truly that – an investigation and discovery for us both. Yes, we work on expressing ourselves and understanding French, but with learning language, it’s more about what doors and windows that language opens up to culture, history, people, and really the world. So, above all, I love that I never for a moment stop reading, listening, watching, thinking, questioning, and discovering, and that it all gets to be part of my job as well! The other major factor that I can’t deny but love about my job is that I am working with students and that I get to be a part of their discovery of the world as well. It is such a thrill to be “a guide on the side” for my students and help steer them, but also let them follow where their individual journeys take them. To be a part of helping them or opening their eyes to other cultures and ideas is the most gratifying experience.

Tell me about your students.

I work with high school students at Tenafly High school. I teach just about all levels of French, so I have the pleasure of working with students from grade 9 all the way on up to grade 12. I am truly blessed to work with students who are willing to engage with each other, with me, and with the style of learning that we promote in our classroom together – which is often times different than other traditional classrooms they’ve been in. We don’t use textbooks, we don’t do traditional vocabulary or grammar lessons the way languages used to be taught or learned in the past. We believe in developing our proficiency in the language and to that end, we focus on what we can do with the language and how we can build on that. We use authentic resources and interesting essential questions to frame our units and spark curiosity, and the students respond well to this environment. They bring their curiosity to class and we enjoy great discussions and discovery together.

Tell me about a project related to your work that you’re really proud of.

I’m pretty proud of the pen pal partnerships that my students and I have been a part of for the last ten years or so. I knew even at the beginning of my career how powerful (and important) it would be for my students to interact with others their own age in French, so I was always thinking about and looking into ways to make that happen. Technology has opened so many possibilities in this domain as well and I’ve been lucky to be part of the generation of educators that sort of grew up along with the arrival of the internet age, so I’ve been able to follow and use that to the advantage of my students. I first sought out pen pals for my students using a website called Epals back in the day. It took a lot of trial and error working with many different teachers and classes in the beginning, but eventually, I had the amazing luck to meet three dynamic teachers from France who shared my enthusiasm and commitment to the project and we’ve been working together ever since. And we’ve dabbled in so many different correspondence methods over the years too – from letters, to blogs, to wikis, to podcasts, to video exchanges… it’s been an adventure and what’s so great about my French colleagues is like me, they are always looking to how we can improve the experience even more for our students. The true highlight for me was after working with my dear colleagues virtually for so many years, actually going to France and meeting them in person! I first met my colleague, Amélie Silvert, in person in Lille in 2014 and I had the double pleasure of meeting my colleagues, Mary-Carol Descroix in Tours and Agnès Royer in La Rochelle, last summer in 2019. I was even able to go to work with Mary-Carol for the day and meet some of her colleagues in the English department. None of them could believe that Mary-Carol and I had only just met in person that day – after ten years of our pen pal project. It was like we had always known each other!

What is your connection to your union/local association?

I have the utmost respect for my local union and association leaders and fellow members. I do my best to follow their lead and fight for the best opportunities, protection, and education for our students and all staff members.

Why did you choose a career in public education?

I’ve always felt drawn to education and coaching. A lot of it I’m sure has to do with the family and community environment in which I grew up, where we all share a true passion and respect for education. One of my grandmothers (whom I never really got to know, but whose stories and achievements are well known and shared by all my family members) was actually a French teacher in elementary schools in Fort Lee in the early half of the twentieth century! What a coincidence! My own parents were teachers of long and treasured careers of over thirty-five years a piece at fellow Bergen County School, Pascack Valley High School. And the list continues for me with aunts, uncles, cousins (both in the United States and in France), as well as siblings, all choosing the path or “calling” to become a teacher, and many also coaches as well. There is truly no nobler career in our book, and we have all taken such pride in following this path.

Have you had a teacher or educational support professional who inspired you?

Honestly, I can’t think of a teacher or coach who did not inspire me in some way! I grew up in Washington Township, near where I live and work now, and growing up in the Westwood school system, I had great experiences to grow and learn. All my teachers and coaches along the way pushed me and guided me, but also gave me space to grow on my own as well. I had the same positive experiences at The College of William and Mary, during my undergraduate studies abroad, during my Master’s years at NYU Paris, and with all my different academic endeavors over the years. I think a lot of that comes down to the ways that I was taught to value education and seek out and take advantage of different opportunities available to me. In my family, we believe that there is something to be learned from everyone, and in every situation! My maternal grandparents, who both lived to be centenarians, taught me that for sure. Learning about many of the obstacles they were faced with growing up and how they both persisted to be lifelong learners even though they did not have anywhere near the opportunities I had to pursue education, was a constant source of inspiration for me – and everyone in my family.

If you had to describe public education in one word, what would that be?

Connections

Public education is facing many challenges. One is the impact that COVID-19 has had on how we teach and how students learn. What have you learned about how you, your colleagues, and your students adapted to remote instruction?

I could not be more grateful for my students’ flexibility, willingness to stick with our goals, and dedication to see them through the end of the year during our virtual school experience. And my admiration extends and multiplies for my colleagues who adapted to these unforeseen circumstances and who taught themselves how to adapt to the new realities and challenges of teaching during the COVID pandemic – all while processing the hardships themselves and dealing with the effects on their lives and families. We’ve all been reflecting on our experiences from these last few months, and like teachers do, we will use these lessons learned to help us move forward and make positive strides and changes for next year and beyond. For me, some of the big takeaways involve the importance and benefits of providing students choice in their learning and also the necessity for teachers to really know and clearly identify what our core goals are in the learning. That way, no matter what adjustments or sacrifices we might have to make in terms of when or how we interact with our students, we never lose sight of what we are all working for and we must make sure that vision is shared by students and their teachers alike. Less can be more when at the heart of it, you are working with and working towards the essential. The remote teaching and learning experience was a great reminder of that idea.

As a result of George Floyd’s murder, along with other tragedies targeting Black people, more and more people are supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. How has this affected you as an educator, and as a person, and how do you see yourself addressing systemic racism through your work as a teacher?

The recent calls to action such as those connected to the Black Lives Matter movement have been a real wakeup call for me. First, I’d like to say that I have heard the call loud and clear about the necessity to open my eyes and educate myself more. As a teacher, I must model this commitment to learn about our society and the importance of looking at the world from different angles, through different voices and lenses, and more importantly, to listen to and truly “hear” the messages of others who live and have been living a different experience than my own. I also recognize that I do not have to do this work on my own, so I have turned to the expertise of great educators, activists, and leaders to be my guides. My journey has started, but I also know that my commitment to Anti-racism has to be a fight that has no end. This summer, my journey has begun by reading books, participating in talks and virtual conferences with other educators on the topic, asking questions, and reflecting about how I can allow for more diverse voices to be represented in the curriculum of the courses I teach. I want to be the kind of educator who can be part of the courageous conversations that must take place within our school communities.

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