National Teachers Hall of Fame Welcomes First Idahoan
Which is more important—the destination or the journey? For Jennifer de Grassi Williams, becoming the first Idaho teacher to be inducted into the National Teachers Hall of Fame was an amazing honor and in some ways the culmination of an amazing career as a professional educator. But if the Hall of Fame represents a destination, Williams is adamant about viewing it through the lens of the journey that got her there—a journey that didn’t stop when she “retired” and isn’t likely to taper off anytime soon.
Since arriving in Idaho in 1972, Williams has utilized her passion for art and her knack for sharing to impact the lives of countless young people. First at Mountain Home High School, then at Skyview High School in Nampa, and whenever and wherever else there has been an opportunity, she has connected with students through art education. Williams’ signature art education program, Project Van Go, recently celebrated its 40th anniversary. She spent many years helping the next generations of teachers as an adjunct professor at Boise State University, and still mentors early career educators through a variety of outlets, including her longtime membership in the IEA.
“It was awesome and humbling,” she said of the induction ceremony, which took place in June at the National Teachers Hall of Fame headquarters in Emporia, Kansas. “I was lucky to be the one who got to represent all of us who do this. As I was standing there I thought of my own teachers, my colleagues, my friends and family, and all of the people who have fed into my soul.”
Williams’ Hall of Fame recognition also came with a visit to Washington, D.C., where she and the other four inductees toured the White House and met with President Obama, along with spending time at the Department of Education and the NEA home office. She took advantage of those opportunities to pass along a message from teachers in Idaho and around the country. “It’s about the ownership piece,” she told education policy-makers. “Give teachers the freedom they crave about what to teach and how to present it. When I was in the classroom the teachers were the experts—that is something that is hard to explain to today’s teachers.”
The IEA’s like-minded position on education advocacy has made it easy for Williams to be involved with the Association’s mission. “I have always seen the IEA jump in with support for members,” she says. While the IEA can lead the way in activism on behalf of public education, at the end of the day it is up to each and every teacher to share their voice, according to Williams. “You have to stand up and fight for your classroom and for your school,” she says.
We hear a lot about innovation in education these days, but Williams combined outside-the-box thinking with inspiration and determination in starting Project Van Go in 1976. She procured a van and took art supplies and Mountain Home High School students to the small, rural town of Prairie, which only had kindergarten through eighth grades in a little red schoolhouse and had limited resources. “It really took on a beautiful, wonderful life of its own,” Williams says. She has picked up many of the expenses herself in order to keep the program on course during its 40 year run, expanding it to other rural communities, including Atlanta, Pine, and Three Creek.
Williams has also penned a series of children’s books, chronicling the adventures of her family and focusing on her passion for pets and animal advocacy. Her books are available online and at the River City Coffee Shop on State Street in Boise. She officially retired from day to day classroom work 10 years ago.
Jennifer de Grassi Williams didn’t set out to be an art teacher, not even taking an art class until her junior year of college. But she found her calling and has enjoyed the incredible journey that now includes the distinction of being the first teacher from Idaho inducted into the National Teachers Hall of Fame. “This experience just tells me that I have more work yet to do,” she says. “I stand on the huge shoulders of so many Idaho teachers and I know that I can’t disappoint them.” No worries there, Jennifer—all educators salute and celebrate your amazing contributions.
Idaho Education News feature story on Jennifer Williams. http://www.idahoednews.org/features/jennifer-williams-teacher-artist-author-advocate-animal-savior/
NEA Today Story on Williams and the four other inductees.
The National Teacher Hall of Fame
Barnes and Noble link to Williams’ book, The Williams Family Adopts Tiki Turtle
National Education Association page with information about retired membership