Top teacher shares experience
Published 8:14 pm Friday, April 3, 2015
Lakeland High School career and technical education teacher Catherine Williams heeded the call to become an educator later in life than most.
She went through Old Dominion University’s career-switcher program in her early 50s, and former Lakeland principal Thomas Whitley offered her a job in 2007.
“I had worked at Tidewater Community College for 20 years,” Williams said Thursday, chatting in her second-floor classroom during a free period.
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Brazilian exchange student Emmanuel Costa sat in the rear of the room, studying quietly, waiting to discuss some aspect of finance with the 2015 Suffolk Public Schools Citywide Teacher of the Year.
“We are studying federal and state tax breaks and where the government gets the authority to tax,” Williams explained.
Williams worked in purchasing and materials management at TCC. But several family members — a daughter, a sister, a nephew — had opted for education careers. She, too, had felt the calling.
“Early in my life, I kind of always thought I would like to go into teaching,” she said. “But life happened.”
She decided to switch after beating cancer for the fourth time. “It really took a life-altering experience for me to say, ‘What do you want to spend the second half of your life doing?’” she said.
Williams said she is conscious of passing that lesson on to her students. “They think whatever they think they want to be at 15 or 16, that’s what they will be for the rest of their life,” she said. “I try to use it as a personal example.”
Since joining Suffolk Public Schools, Williams hasn’t had the chance to get bored with what she teaches. “Every year I have worked here I have taught something different,” she said.
This year it’s introduction to marketing, marketing, and economics and personal finance.
Teaching took a bit of getting used to, Williams said, especially multiple classes at the high-school level.
“There’s a lot of your own personal time that’s spent planning (and) constructing lesson plans,” she said. “There’s also a lot of time evaluating a lesson you thought was going to work spectacularly well, and it bombed.”
But there’s a “wonderful thing,” she said, when a teacher arrives at the end of the school year and has the summer to reflect and “come into it at a different angle” in the fall.
Williams is grateful for her age. “I get to come to my students almost with a grandmotherly love and affection,” she said.
She has four grandchildren, between the ages of 1 and 10, and two children.
When she addresses cancer support groups, Williams said, “I try to talk … about how it really can be an experience that changes your life for the better.”
“It’s better if you can find that little place in it where you can learn something, or where it’s going to help you,” she said.
“I have met some incredible people by being a cancer survivor.”
Williams learned of her award this week. She heard a knock at her door and opened it to find Superintendent Deran Whitney, some others from the central office, and Lakeland principal Douglas Wagoner, bearing the exciting news.
“There are so many fantastic teachers in this school system,” Williams said. “This is quite an honor for me.”