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What Makes a State Teacher of the Year?

Mathieu Williams talks about his experience as 2019 Hawai’i State Teacher of the Year and how educators can use this role to further amplify the needs of their students and communities.

By The TFA Editorial Team

May 28, 2019

Students follow their teacher in a line.

At this time of year, educators naturally reflect on the progress they made in the classroom over the past year and begin to think of the year ahead. But what does that look like when you’re State Teacher of the Year and your impact extends far beyond your classroom?

Mathieu Williams (Hawai’i ‘12) was named 2019 Hawai’i State Teacher of the Year in October 2018 in recognition of his work expanding the technology and digital media program at Kealakehe Intermediate School. He spoke with us about his year as State Teacher of the Year, including how it happened, the role’s unique responsibilities and opportunities, and his future aspirations in working for educational equity.

Could you tell me what “State Teacher of the Year” is exactly, for those who may not know?

To start, the National Teacher Program is run by the Council of Chief State School Officers, a nationwide nonprofit organization who head departments of elementary and secondary education in the states, the District of Columbia, the Department of Defense Education Activity, the Bureau of Indian Education and the five U.S. extra-state jurisdictions. They hold a commitment to figuring out how can educators can be on the same page, whether it’s implementing new standards or exploring and adapting new technologies. They bring all these education leaders together and under that umbrella is the National Teacher Program.

And so, every state and territory has an opportunity to select their State Teacher of the Year. There are 57 each year, and that's because it includes Puerto Rico, American Samoa, Northern Mariana Islands, Department of Defense, Guam and the Virgin Islands. Every state teacher-elect serves for about one year.

How does a teacher receive this award?

It’s different for every state and territory, so I can only speak to Hawai’i. But basically, you have to be nominated. Every teacher here in Hawai'i has the opportunity to be nominated and that's done through a principal.

How were you nominated?

My principal, Mark Hackelberg, came up to me and just said, "Hey Mathieu, I really appreciate your work and I think you've been doing a lot of things for the greater community and our state." He encouraged me to apply.

At first, I said, "Thank you, I really appreciate that. But, no, that's just not who I am, I’m not really an awards type of person." I set it aside.

What changed your mind?

Dayle Yokoyama. She's like my second mom and a big mentor to me, and she told me, "No, Mathieu, I really think you should do this." Whenever she tells me things like that, it means I should do it.

I reconsidered and reflected. I came to this realization that it's more than just about me, right? That's truly how I shifted my mindset. This award is a collective award of the efforts of everyone around me, first starting with my students, my colleagues, and then the greater community. I tell my kids, without them, I don't have this. I said, “Your names are a part of this award as much as, if not more. You guys really taught me like what it means to be excellent, what it means to think about who we serve, making sure that we do it from a place of equity, a place that really addresses the needs of everyone.”

So I decided to fill out the application. I had to scramble to do it last minute before the deadline.

So, what exactly do State Teachers of the Year do? Do you have any special responsibilities or duties after receiving this award?

That also differs from each state and territory. In some states, teachers remain in the classroom, while others are given a sabbatical, or have the opportunity to travel around their states for specific events and speaking engagements. In Hawai’i, there are no set responsibilities and every state teacher has has an opportunity to uniquely shape their role to best maximize the platform.

For me, there have been special projects around teacher leadership and speaking engagements such as the West Hawai'i summit ECET2, a conference to celebrate and elevate teachers, and the “It’s Great To be A Teacher” event. I participated in that event on Oahu and that was probably the most fun. The opportunity was extended to me by Chaminade University, the school I completed my masters in Educational Leadership degree. I got to talk to educational assistants and substitute teachers who are thinking about being part of the field. We really got to discuss what motivates and moves us forward as teachers.

Then I think it's just about being available to my greater community in the sense of how to inspire and trade opportunities of excellence within teaching. That's how I've decided to personalize my work as State Teacher of the Year. My students have really done a great job maximizing their collaborative efforts with a whole host of community and state partners this past school year.

What do you think are the qualities that make someone a State Teacher of the Year?

For me, the award truly represents a strengthened sense of excellence and collaboration within teaching. I constantly choose to chase the best version of myself every day. I pride myself in being relentless in this chase. If I can first change myself to be better, then I know I have a chance at inspiring greatness in others, and particularly, my students.

“To me, teaching is the most innovative profession there is.”

Mathieu Williams

2019 Hawai'i State Teacher of the Year

Hawai'i Corps Member 2012

And what is your advice to those who aspire towards this award?

What are you doing for others? Is your work that you're choosing to do each and every day, affecting just your kids, or are you choosing to inspire, empower, and give agency to your kids to then help others? The award is not for me individually but the collective whole. So, how are you going to use the platform to then elevate and motivate and celebrate others?

If you aspire to something like being a State Teacher of the Year, then you have to do that on a day-to-day basis with your kids. It's not just about the 30 kids that you teach today for the year, but how do you see those 30 kids being those leaders—not even in 10 years, but immediately. How can the work they're doing right now make an impact on the classroom next door, their school, and their community? That should be the mindset when aspiring for it.

How can National and State Teachers of the Year use their voices to amplify the needs of their communities?

I'm sure you've heard about Rodney Robinson, and how he’s using his National Teacher of the Year platform to talk about the school-to-prison pipeline and bring attention to that issue. That's what we, as State Teachers and National Teachers of the Year, do.

For me, the first part of this role has involved actively listening. I represent the 12,000 teachers in my state. I have a responsibility to make sure that I hold the voice of those teachers and the issues they care about, whether that issue is teacher retention, culturally based education, or teacher leadership. I also have a responsibility to listen to multiple stakeholders beyond classroom teachers, including the community itself.

Right now I'm working with the other Hawai’i State Teachers of the Year before me—all the way back to 1999 Hawai’i State Teacher of the Year and national finalist Derek Minakami—to create a collaborative project. Across all of our different islands, we want to create and strengthen a pipeline of future leadership within our state, and understand excellence in teaching in all different areas.

Now that you’re State Teacher of the Year, what are your future aspirations in the work towards educational equity?

Right now, I am working on a project with my colleague Bill Chen, who is also a Teach For America (Hawai'i ‘13) teacher: How do we create a physical space here for culture education, for STEM, for media, where kids can just come in, drop in, create, learn, and design solutions around challenges they see within their community? A place where community members can come by and learn beside kids? A space where we can can connect classroom to industry and create a strong sense of belonging?

Learning should be lifelong, and if we are not actively tapping into students’ curiosity to learn, the world we tell kids they have the power to change will not take place. I think we, as a school system, unintentionally kill curiosity for kids. So if we can get kids to feel that they belong and really play to their greatest passions and nurture it, the future will be amazing as far as what they can do. As a digital media and technology teacher,I truly believe the tools within media and technology have the power to amplify student agency to lead people to change.

Is there anything else you’d like to share about the importance of teachers?

To me, teaching is the most innovative profession there is. We talk so much about the Silicon Valley and the hub of innovation that it inspires but I truly think the opportunity educators have to step into a classroom and create our own Silicon Valley ecosystem is possible. The future is right in front of us—it's just humbling and something that I think we have to really take seriously and own the beauty within that responsibility.

We truly do have the power to change the world, as cliché as that sounds. And in order for us to really create that change, it requires us to make sure that we are truly opening our hearts, minds, and ears to our students’ needs and understanding their stories.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.