|Father Ryan High School teacher C.A. Williams helps junior Brooke Ozment with an assignment in her study skills class. Williams, who has taught at Father Ryan for over 40 years, was recently honored with the Christ the Teacher award from the Diocese of Nashville Catholic Schools office. The award is given annually to an outstanding teacher in the diocese. Photo by Theresa Laurence
C.A. Williams, a teacher at Father Ryan High School for more than 40 years, has “worn many hats at Father Ryan and I’ve loved them all.”
She’s been an art teacher, history teacher, launched the Cooperative Support and Early Intervention programs at Father Ryan, coached tennis, sponsored the chess club and served as moderator for the Model UN club, among other roles.
But more than developing history whiz-kids or chess champions, “I want every kid walking out of my classroom knowing I love and respect them,” she said.
For her selfless attitude, along with her “example of Christ like leadership” and her “dedication, commitment, self-sacrifice and kindness to everyone,” representing the heart of Catholic education, Williams was recently presented with the Diocese of Nashville’s Christ the Teacher Award, given annually to an outstanding teacher in the diocese.
“It was a total surprise,” Williams said of receiving the award at a Feb. 13 diocesan-wide teacher in-service day.
Coming to school every day and teaching is a reward enough in itself, she said. “I’ve never felt depressed about going to school on Monday morning. … I so love what I do.”
Moving through the halls of Father Ryan, clad in sparkly Sketchers tennis shoes and a jacket, shirt, and dangling earrings bearing the Ryan logo, Williams greets individual students from among the crowd, sharing a high five and a smile with them. When she gets to her study skills classroom, she moves around the room, talking sports with some of the guys, then helping one of the girls with a history assignment. It’s clear that she is in her element, connecting with her students at every turn.
In nominating Williams for the Christ the Teacher award, Father Ryan Principal Paul Davis noted that “she never seeks recognition, and simply goes about the day each and every school day to teach ‘her children.’”
He added that “she has given her entire career to the advancement of all students whether teaching the valedictorians … or those students who have the most significant learning differences. She treats all students with unconditional love no matter their struggles.”
Some of Williams’ brightest students have gone on to have successful careers as doctors; she notes with pride that all of her personal physicians “who keep me ticking” are former students. But it’s often the students who are the “undiscovered diamonds” for whom she has the softest spot. That’s one reason she helped start the Cooperative Support Program nearly 30 years ago.
“We set up that program because there were some really good kids who were doing poorly” academically, she said, and she wanted to change that.
The program exists to assist students with clinically diagnosed learning disabilities, as well as those with different learning styles who need additional, individualized plans to help them succeed in school.
Williams sees this program as an extension of what every teacher should do for their students: “build and support their self-esteem,” she said. “I look at people like a puzzle. You’ve got to figure out where they’re coming from. Everybody has a story.”
In addition to the Cooperative Support Program, Williams also helped launch the Early Intervention Program in the late 1970s to help students struggling with drug and alcohol abuse. “We were seeing kids go down the tubes who could have been saved,” she said, getting kicked out of school and ending up as dropouts, in jail or worse. Instead of being kicked out of school, Williams wanted to give students an alternative, to enter treatment and return to school. “Chemical dependency needs to be treated as an illness,” Williams said.
“To say that she and others at Father Ryan were thinking outside of the box to implement this program is an understatement,” Davis said. “It took decades for other secondary schools to see that this issue was crucial to the well-being of students. The early days of this program were controversial, but these dedicated educators pursued what they thought was best for our student community.”
The program has since evolved and has been copied by schools in Tennessee and other states. At Father Ryan, it is now part of the school’s comprehensive Personal Counseling Department.
Williams is no longer involved with Early Intervention; today she serves as the chair of the Social Sciences Department, and is the faculty moderator for the Model United Nations and Youth Legislature clubs.
“My whole life and career here have been such a ride,” she said.
One of her greatest sources of pride these days is seeing former students with their families at Mass at Christ the King Church, where she attends the Saturday evening service. “That validates what we do here” at Father Ryan, she said, building a strong foundation of faith in students.
Williams, who counts Albert Einstein, humanitarian Albert Schweitzer, Mother Teresa and Ghandi among her heroes, never had children of her own, but considers the thousands of Father Ryan students she has taught over four decades as hers. “They mean everything to me,” she said. “I’ve had a blessed life doing what I love.”