Darnell Williams, Stafford Intermediate School, ELA and Social Studies, 6th Grade

I’m not just a teacher, but I also am the head coach of Ocean County College for women’s basketball. The year before I got there, we were 1 and 20, then the following year after I got there, went to 20 and 5 and went to the finals. Actually, originally, when I was younger, I wanted to be a basketball star. But when I realized early on that wasn’t going to happen, right after high school I became a motivational speaker and an author and I started writing books and traveling and speaking to kids. I also became a team leader for a program called Jumpstart. We were a group of college kids and we got to work with four and five year olds, and all of a sudden, I could see that I loved what I did. And I went to Rutgers Camden and got my degree there and went the education route. I have actually just graduated with my Master’s in Education and Translations.

I’m from the south side of Chicago. I was very lucky because my father was in the military, so we got a chance to travel. I got a chance to really see the world. People were always saying to me, ‘Oh, you’re going do great things,’ because they saw my heart and my passion to inspire others. I think it wasn’t until I got to Camden, New Jersey, that I saw the struggle–and once I started working with Jumpstart and working with different kids. These kids were surrounded by some terrible things, like drugs and gang violence; and some of them came from single parent households. Some of them were in a school program called the wraparound program, which is where they are in school from seven in the morning to seven at night. I learned something: these weren’t bad kids, much like the kids I have in Stafford. today, you know. They needed love, and attention and education and teachers who cared for them.

I live by my motto of ‘I am worthy.’ It’s the most powerful phrase you’re ever going to hear in your life, is two words, I am. And whatever follows, right, is your mindset. Every morning at my school in Stafford, I start my class the same way: ‘How is your mental health today? How are you doing? If you’re not doing well, if you’re not believing in yourself, get around to somebody who can make you feel good about life again.’ If you’re putting all of yourself, your work, your love, your abilities into your kids, you’re going to help them see that. I was telling those kids in Camden, ‘You’re worthy.’ I’m telling my kids in Stanford ‘You’re worthy, and you’re worthy because your life matters. You are somebody worthy not because of the circumstances you were given, but the ability to get through those circumstances.’ So, once that became the motto of my life, it transformed everything.

This past year PBS put together this  special with teachers, called Digital Innovators, and they called me to tell me they’re doing an award event where they want to honor teachers, and I was one of the teachers to be given such an honor. And during the awards the Cookie Monster introduced me and other teachers, and you know that’s the kind of stuff you can’t make up. It was so incredible. I don’t know where the journey is going to lead me next, but I am grateful for my family, and my wife especially. My wife has been there with me through thick and thin, from when I was pretty much a nobody to where I am today, and she helped keep me grounded through all of this.

Interview and article by Gregory Andrus.

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