Story: Lisa Sollie | Photos: Cody Ingram

Adonis Williams was in junior high before he experienced what it is like to have a male educator in a classroom. One of only a few male students in the junior and senior blocks studying elementary education on campus at the University of West Alabama, Williams and his classmates are doing their part to break the cycle for the next generation.

According to Dr. Amanda Pendergrass, UWA associate professor of elementary education and chair of the Department of Teaching and Learning, the College of Education has not had this many males in a cohort move together through the program in a very long time.

For Williams, working in a predominantly female field isn’t intimidating. He believes his upbringing prepared him for it. Raised by his mother in the small, tight-knit community of Atmore, Alabama, he was also extremely close to his grandmother and great-grandmother, who passed away last year.

“Family has always been a huge part of my life, and these three women were the ones who shaped and influenced me more than anyone.”

Through this semester’s field experience, he has already experienced a small taste of the impact his presence in the classroom will generate. “I’m soaking it up,” he said with a wide grin. “The kids are already intrigued and want to know more about me, and I want to know about them because I love connecting with people, no matter their age.”

Williams gives nod to his great-grandmother for his caring attitude. “She always gave, and whatever she could do for people, she did it. I think I saw that behavior for so long it made a lasting impression on me, and now I model it too.”

And it’s the impact people had on him that he said he remembers most about elementary school.

“Kids that age are modeling what they see, like I did with my great-grandmother. When I think about all the opportunities I will have — especially as a Black male — to affect them in such a way they may want to model what I do say or say, it is exciting and humbling.”

In the 2020-21 school year, only 1.3 percent of public school teachers were Black men, according to the National Teacher and Principal Survey. Even more startling were the findings published in the Fall 2020 issue of Edge: Carolina Education Review (Gershenson, Hart, Lindsay & Papageorge, 2017; Lindsay, 2020) that stated for Black male students,

…having a Black teacher for one year in elementary school raised long-run educational attainment, especially for those from low-income households.

For the most disadvantaged Black males, Lindsay and her team estimated that exposure to a Black teacher in elementary school reduced high school dropout rates by 39 percent and raised college-going aspirations.

“Since most classroom teachers are female, the importance of male elementary teachers cannot be overstated,” noted Pendergrass. “All students need male role models to look up to and learn from, particularly ones who do not have one in the home.  In my experience, I have not been in many elementary schools that have any male classroom teachers at all.  The fact that UWA has four currently in junior block leaves me feeling hopeful that more males will join the elementary teaching field.”

Williams journey to UWA

When he was younger, Williams’ dream was to be a principal. He just didn’t know at the time he had to become a teacher first.

A transfer student from Coastal Alabama Community College in Bay Minette, Alabama, Williams took classes online his first semester at UWA, but was eager to attend the University in person. While most students would reach out and arrange a tour, he went in a different direction.

“I set up a meeting with the assistant housing director to see what might be available. I knew I didn’t have time to work a job or put a big financial burden on my mom. So yes,” Williams laughed, “my first time in Livingston and on the University campus, and I’m questioning this guy about housing opportunities!” And it paid off. During the visit, he learned he could apply to be a resident assistant (RA), which would provide complimentary housing, and if accepted, all he would have to cover was tuition and fees.

Returning home to Atmore, Williams filled out an RA application and an orientation form since he was transitioning from online classes to in-person. After attending orientation, he vowed to follow every social media platform UWA had, and when he did, he learned the 2023 ambassador applications were available. Williams filled that form out, too, and before classes started that spring, returned to the University for two interviews on the same day, one for the RA position and one for a UWA ambassador.

“Even though I was super excited I was selected for both positions, I didn’t realize then how hard moving away from home was going to be. That first semester was tough. Not only did I miss the three most important women in my life, but I really couldn’t go home regularly to visit them since I was an RA and an ambassador. I also joined Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, and of course, I was trying to keep my grades up.”

When Williams started back to school this past fall, he added a fourth commitment, the Student Government Association (SGA), to his plate. Unfortunately, he was also aware his great-grandmother’s health was declining, and in September, before he could go home and visit, she passed away.

“Her death was tough. I’m still processing it. In a way, my grief has worsened the longer it’s been, and now, every time I go home, I have to adjust to that void. Thank God I’m busy. It helps me as I try to work through it.”

Graduation may be over a year away, but Williams is ready to “put gas” in his students’ tanks. “In theory, I don’t believe kids ever forget the one who pours into them and fills their tank. Knowing I have the power to not only fill their tank but pay for it and then send them on the way full and ready for the future is amazing!”

He also looks forward to working with fellow educators toward the common goal of student success. “There is just something about school spirit and the togetherness that I’m eager to be a part of. I see it here in the College of Education and can’t wait to experience it wherever I end up.” According to Williams, the COE’s camaraderie and team effort in and out of the classroom has significantly impacted him as a student.

“I see the way the faculty work together and cheer each other on, which encourages me and my classmates to bond and stay connected. Everything the faculty does — what they say and how, how they teach and interact with us, their students — they are modeling what they want us to do with our own students one day. Dr. Pendergrass always tells us she’s here to build effective teachers,” added Williams. “And to me that means, if I’m excited about seeing how my students’ minds work and care about being a difference maker in their lives, I can’t help but be successful in the classroom.”