A Sense of Purpose, A Sense of Place
Encouraging his students to thrive where they’re planted is just one way 2019 Hawai‘i State Teacher of the Year Mathieu Williams oﬀers support to the next generation of leaders.
For 2019 Hawai‘i State Teacher of the Year Mathieu Williams, it’s never just about him. The media/digital technology teacher at Kealakehe Intermediate School has a lot to be proud of, yet steadfastly refuses to grab all the credit himself.
“Every day, in every way, this is a collaborative effort, and it took a lot of people working together to make this honor happen,” he says. “We all share in the moment.”
The accolade of State Teacher of the Year came in part due to Williams’ work in developing innovative technology tools and techniques that he says helps students tell stories that will build their personal global brands, while lifting them up with awareness and authenticity through high school, college and beyond.
The product of both homeschool and private school backgrounds, Williams, 30, says he very much believes in public education and always stays positive.
“Yes, there are challenges in the public schools, but there are also a lot of bright spots,” he says. “As I continue to chase the best version of myself while leading my students to do the same, I like to approach working within the public education system from an asset-based mindset, not a deficit-focused one.”
Born and raised on Kaua‘i, Williams moved with his family to Bellingham, Washington, and later obtained his degree in business administration from Eastern Washington University in Walla Walla, as well as a master’s in educational leadership from Chaminade University.
His dad instilled a strong work ethic in him and pushed him to always do his best. As a student missionary in the Marshall Islands, Williams gleaned a global perspective that he would eventually call on frequently when later working with the same demographic in Hawai‘i schools.
“This experience was like an extra door that was opened up for me because I gained a greater understanding of Marshallese strengths and cultural differences,” he says.
As a 2012 Teach for America recruit, he landed the job after quite the search.
“After Christmas break before my final six months of university, I decided I would apply for one job every day for 30 days,” he explains. “The TFA position came up and required a two-year commitment. So I asked for my placement to be in Hawai‘i, as I felt close ties to the community here.”
Shortly thereafter, Williams was hired on as a special education inclusion teacher for Kealakehe Intermediate School and became a media teacher about four years ago.
The accomplishments in his media and digital technology classroom have been nothing short of powerhouse impressive for a relatively new teacher.
In March 2018, he and his students competed in the 15th annual Student Television Network Convention in Tennessee, taking first place in the spot feature contest and third place in the movie trailer contest. They also competed in the public service announcement category.
“It was a winning moment not just for us but for all West Hawai‘i schools,” Williams says. “It proves our little school in Hawai‘i can do amazing things across the country in Nashville. Winning was great, and we are all competitive, but this was more about doing our best, putting in the hard work, and shooting for excellence and greatness.”
Williams has also led his classes on other notable projects, such as piloting a virtual field trip of Makalawena created by Kamehameha Schools and Arizona State University. It’s an immersive 360-degree video experience that aims to perpetuate Hawaiian culture through the sharing of mo‘olelo. His students are also currently working with Kohala Center to create PSAs that promotes reef-safe sunscreen.
“It’s always wonderful when learning can happen outside these four walls,” Williams says. “We ask the students to consider how will the audience think, feel and hear. We want to tie everything we do to place. Place matters, and it defines the whole trajectory students are on.”
Williams likes teaching this age group, believing it’s an opportunity to nurture and shape young minds before the pressures of high school hit.
“It’s an awkward, yet critical age,” he says. “I do think they have the capacity and ability to understand the impact of their decisions. They have a highly creative side, and they want to learn. So I believe that unlocking their potential builds confident learners.”
At the same time, Williams says exposing middle-schoolers to important global issues and allowing them to experience different things will better equip these students to see their path forward.
Students in his classes, for example, learn about building their brands, which involves more than what they do on social media.
“Building your brand entails intentional storytelling,” Williams explains. “You are telling a story about yourself and connecting it to the power of your community and its culture.”
Yes, there can be some behavioral challenges in the classroom. This is middle school, after all. But Williams says that by keeping them accountable, their support net becomes even wider.
“We treat each other with kindness here, allowing them to fail safely. The behavior often gets corrected by the students themselves before it becomes too problematic,” he says. “They know they need to own it and that they are held accountable at the highest levels.”
This progressive teaching style has reaped some personal rewards for Williams, including having former students who are now in high school return to express thanks and to let him know they want to pursue media technology as a college major and career.
“Teacher of the Year is truly a collective reward because these are their stories and recount what we did together as a team,” Williams says. “Building a sense of belonging with students pays huge dividends down the line. It’s humbling and rewarding that we achieved this as a creative collaboration, and are able to connect media to the community and each kid’s passion to the world’s needs. These kids are far smarter and more creative than we give them credit for. They are the Students of the Year.”