Skip to main content

TEAM: How My Identity as an Athlete Informed My Classroom Culture

2018 corps member AD Williams shares on her identity-based leadership development as an early-career teacher through designing her classroom culture around the theme of TEAM, which was built on her personal experiences as an athlete.

2018 corps member AD Williams

By AD Williams

August 15, 2019

"We are scholars.

We listen when others are talking and sharing.

We keep our hands to ourselves.

We clean up after ourselves and our peers.

We always come to class prepared to learn.

We are kind to the teacher, the classroom, and guests.

We are scholars."

- "Scholar Anthem" by AD Williams

Every morning, I ask a different student to come up in front of the classroom and recite our Scholar Anthem. It builds students’ public speaking and confidence, and it sets the tone for the day. With each line they recite, the rest of the class echoes the line back. By the end of the year, arms are high in the air before I’ve had a chance to even ask for a volunteer.

As a first-year teacher last year, the first few weeks were rough as I struggled on setting a classroom culture and finding my identity as a teacher. Students didn’t know me. Relationships at the time weren’t firm. I had a lot of discipline problems and had quite a few parent meetings. In navigating these early challenges, I figured that the best way to build a strong classroom culture with my students was to lead with my personal identity as an athlete. Once I decided to teach from that identity, I began developing authentic relationships with scholars.

I spent the vast majority of my life playing basketball. Through basketball, I learned valuable lessons about teamwork, like who I was as a person and how my individual role contributed to the team, and to our collective goals. So, I decided to own my identity as an athlete in the classroom and shape a culture around the word TEAM, drawing on the impact that my own basketball teams have had on shaping me over the years to become the person I am today.

Many of my young students aspire to be athletes when they grow up, and bringing the standards of being on a team into the classroom is useful both in and beyond the classroom. Together Everyone Achieves More, the more students are able to get along and learn from each other, the more cohesive the classroom becomes. Each student understands that their actions affect the class as a whole, not only themselves.

One memory I recall of how being on a team really affected me was during college. We usually have a basketball game that took place around or on the anniversary of my father’s death. With my father passing away when I was 8 years old, those games were always emotionally tough. But, my teammates were there, being a listening ear, being there if I needed a shoulder to cry on. They motivated me and gave me words of encouragement: “He wouldn’t want you to be sad, he’d want you to be proud.” They inspired me to take tenacity to the court in a positive manner instead of sitting there sad. I learned that teammates pick each other up—there are not always good days, but it was important just to be there for one another.

“I figured that the best way to build a strong classroom culture with my students was to lead with my personal identity as an athlete. Once I decided to teach from that identity, I began developing authentic relationships with scholars.”

AD Williams

Indianapolis Corps Member 2018

These memories and learnings helped me to design classroom standards and expectations around the theme of TEAM, teaching my students to be supportive of other scholars by holding one another accountable and cheering each other on no matter what, like my own teammates and I did. Each morning, once the Scholar Anthem is said, everyone is held to those standards. We value everyone’s voice in the classroom and the ability to “take a risk.” If you were to walk in my classroom, you may notice that as students answer questions, the other scholars say “good job” or “good job taking a risk, you will get it right next time.” It builds confidence in scholars to know that the class is supportive of them. It also encourages the idea that we are all family despite our differences in race, gender, culture, etc. We all come each day working towards one goal: learning.

Last year, two of my students, Ally and Kara* (names changed), tended to get their work done quickly. In our TEAM culture, when they were done with their work, they started surfing the room to help others. If I was busy working with a student that needed additional scaffolding, they went around and found other peers who needed support. I’d see Ally and Kara sit with them, not giving out the answers but asking step-by-step questions like, “What are we supposed to do with a word we don’t know?”

“Box it?” their peer would reply.

“That’s a good start,” they’d answer with encouragement.

Seeing the classroom as a TEAM and shaping it around sports has both helped me become more comfortable as an educator and also taught my students the importance of hard work, support for one another, and taking risks. It is my hope that my scholars will use these skills to go and become the next first-generation graduates, just like myself.


AD Williams is currently in her second year as an elementary school teacher at Emma Donnan K-8 School, where she was selected as 2018-19 Newcomer Teacher of the Year. She plays basketball semi-professionally over the summer.