John Williams is the principal at Phoenix Academy High School in Chapel Hill and was recently named Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Principal of the Year. Staff writer Jacquelyn Melinek spoke with Williams about the award and his experience as an educator.
The Daily Tar Heel: How did you get into the education field?
John Williams: I moved up to North Carolina to be closer to my mom, and when I went to look for a job I had a couple of interviews in Raleigh for mental health counseling. But before I left my hometown, I stopped by the school board and I dropped off a resume. And I had no intentions of working there, I was just looking for a job. But when I went to drop off my resume that particular day, they never let me leave. They interviewed me that same day and they offered me a job. That was in July of 2003 — I started working that August, then in October of that year they offered me the job as the principal and I’ve pretty much been an administrator ever since.
DTH: What are the most rewarding experiences you've had as an educator?
JW: One (experience) that speaks out more than anything else does was at Chewning Middle School in Durham. It was one of the lowest performing schools in the district and hadn’t made expected performance standards within five years. And in the sixth year, in 2011, while I was there, we made expected growth. And I think that’s pretty darn amazing.
DTH: What did you do differently to cause the growth?
JW: I knew it was going to be a challenge, and I didn’t know what I was going to do. I think what literally made a difference was that I took responsibility for all the students and I wasn’t going to allow the people to come in and tell me what I needed to do to make the school move (forward). I did what I thought was right.
DTH: How did you feel when you heard you were the Principal of the Year?
JW: I was really surprised. I have about 36 students total right now, and it’s typically unheard of for a principal of an alternative school would ever win Principal of the Year in any district. I thought that was pretty darn amazing. This award is based off who your peers vote for, so the other principals throughout the school district nominated and voted for me to be the Principal of the Year and that just tells me that the work that I’m doing, to some degree, is being noticed.
DTH: What is the most difficult part of being a principal?
JW: It’s hard to answer that question. That should be something very simple, but when you look at any small contribution to a district being made, it could wind up majorly affecting a lot of things. I don’t know if there are some things that are extremely difficult or easy, but I know it’s extremely rewarding to make an impact on the lives and future of our country. It’s going to have a profound effect of our society, it may be a small part of our society or huge but either way it’s still one nonetheless. You never know what to expect one day to the next, and you’re going to impact people’s lives for futures and generations to come.
DTH: What plans do you have for your school this school year?
JW: One of the things I’ve done and started is I typically come up with things that I’m going to work on all year. Last year we called it VRP: Vocabulary, relationships and planning. This year it is called ART: Academic rigor, restorative practices and trauma informed. So our school is a trauma informed school because our students have struggled with things in their lives.
DTH: What is something you think all your students should know? Life advice?
JW: Every single graduation, I always end my last statement with: If you want to be successful in life, spend your life trying to make others successful.
In order to be successful you have to serve first, you have to give and make sure someone else is going to win. It’s about everyone, it’s about others, and you’re not the only one around and right. In order to make a difference you have to spend your life trying to have others do the same.
And yes, there are some people who disagree and want to get ahead in life and take advantage of any situation there is, but I just wholeheartedly don’t support that philosophy. I just believe that life is bigger than any individual. You have to give to others in order for you to continue to grow and develop.