He cast an imposing shadow as he strolled across the lobby of Grayson County Middle School. At 6-foot-7, new Wilkey Elementary Principal Jonathan Williams must seem like a larger-than-life figure to the elementary children he’s been charged with leading. But one quickly forgets about Williams’ height as he begins to tell the story of how he decided to enter into first teaching, and then administration.
The 32-year old Williams, who is originally from Edmonson County, where he played on the hardwood for the Wildcats, first considered getting into coaching, but it wasn’t long before he decided that coaching was not his calling.
“I thought I wanted to do more coaching than I did teaching when I was a kid, but then I got into coaching I was like, it’s not for me. I coached here (at Grayson County Middle School); I helped coach the seventh and eighth grade boys and it was great. But I went home (to Edmonson County) and helped coach the varsity team. (It was) new coach, new team … everybody’s kid is an all-star, and none of them were all-stars, and I was like, I’m not doing this.”
Perhaps if Williams had stayed away from his hometown and tried his hand at coaching, it would have altered his career arc, but the path he took led him to administration.
“It was so much easier (coaching in Grayson County) because I didn’t know anyone,” Williams said. “A lot of times in your hometown it can be great, or it can be tough. The positives are the negatives; you get to work with people you know, and you have to work with people you know.”
Williams’ teaching career took an early detour, though, as he left college to support his new wife as she finished her academic career.
“I started out in Elementary Education (in college), and pulled out of school and started working in sales,” Williams said. “My wife and I got married; I quit school and started working. She finished school. I told my mother-in-law I will make sure my wife finishes college.”
During his time out of school, Williams began to re-think his choice of which teaching discipline to follow; necessitated by a need to find work quickly.
“I had to be able to get back in and take classes and then start working,” Williams stated. L”I didn’t think Elementary Education was broad enough, so Special Education is K through 12. How hard is it to get an Elementary Education job? It’s pretty hard unless you know someone -- I just came from a school where we hired two Elementary Education teachers out of 125 applicants.
“So I chose Special Ed because it gave me a lot of variety; it was something different every single day, and obviously it’s rewarding to be able to help those kids.”
Teaching Special Education students offers its own challenges, but Williams has the right message for those saddled with a learning disability.
“A learning disability is just that, a disability; it’s an obstacle, it’s not saying, ‘hey, you can’t do this,’ it’s just saying we have to overcome this hurdle to do it,” Williams said. “(It’s) overcoming hurdles and pushing to the next level, so in Special Ed, a student with a disability just has an extra obstacle to overcome. It’s not that it can’t be done, it’s just that they have an obstacle to jump over.”
Besides one’s academic career, Williams relates overcoming obstacles to not many areas of life, but all areas.
“Sports, marriage, family, religion, administration, teaching, life, are obstacles,” Williams passionately said.
Williams’ message isn’t only about overcoming barriers; his message is permeated with the thought that together, anything is possible.
“One quote (Kentucky basketball head coach) John Calipari throws out there is – ‘If you want to go quick, go by yourself, it you want to go far, go together,’” Williams related. “The whole point is; let go of my way, and merge it into our way. That’s the whole thing. If you want to say its synergy or symbiosis; that’s what it all comes down to, whether it’s a successful marriage, successful schools, successful families, and successful school districts. It’s not one person, it’s the oneness, the unity of the group” which is the key.
“(Take) San Antonio Spurs head coach Greg Popovich (for example); the Spurs have won five titles in the last 15 years or so, so someone asked him, ‘what’s the key to your success?’ And he said, ‘I’ve never allowed them to be satisfied with being good. Every time I thought we started to peak, the next morning we’re in the film room identifying ways to get better.’
“Well, how can that translate to marriage,” Williams asked. “How can that translate to parenting? How can that translate to teaching? How can that translate to leadership? Perfectly. It’s always trying to get better.”
Williams’ philosophy also takes a tack which allows others the opportunity to offer guidance and knowledge to the conversation. Something less astute would-be leaders are hard-pressed to accept.
“I think at the end of the day, you have to say, if you’re in leadership … I don’t know it all,” Williams stated. “I’m not selfish, and that’s part of being a leader. I’m not the best at all of it. I know what I do well, and I know what I’m weak at. So you surround yourself with people that do things you’re weak at.”
Williams’ thoughts on leadership bend toward leading in order to help others. To him, serving is not only important, it is mandatory.
“You’re actually a servant, and I think that’s a misconception that I like to communicate to people that’s coming up (in the academic world). I’m talking about high school, middle school and elementary school; I tell them, ‘Hey, you get into leadership to serve.’”
Nearly every successful leader has a mentor, someone who gave them a push and pointed them in the right direction. Williams is no different, as he credits a Hardin County administrator for helping him fulfill his considerable potential as the leader of a school.
“John Thomas, the principal at West Hardin Middle School, immediately started pushing me. (He told me) ‘You take care of this, get on this committee. You have a desire to be in administration one day, correct? Well, I want you to do this. This job is open at Lakewood Elementary, you need to interview for it and get some experience.’ He would be the one that would say, ‘we’re going to do what’s best for kids.’ A lot of my style I got from John Thomas at West Hardin Middle School. He’s the first person I call when I have a situation I don’t know what to do with.”
As principal of Wilkey, Williams has very definite ideas about how to best mold young minds into eager, enthusiastic, yearning-to-learn students.
“We’re going to expect their very best every single day; Period,” Williams said. “It takes some time to build the relationships, but after I’ve had time, the kids are going to know that Mr. Williams loves me and he cares for me. That goes a long way.
“Now in my opinion, you have to get to that point. You have to build that relationship and show them … you don’t just walk in the first day saying, I love you, I love you, I love you. You build a relationship, and for me, I will become a part of the Wilkey family, part of the Wilkey community, and at the end of the day we’re going to expect certain things from them.”
Giving 100-percent is a common theme with Williams, and perhaps one reason he has rocketed up the academic ranks as quickly he has. Williams thrives on giving his best, and he demands the best effort each teacher and student is able to muster. On a daily basis.
“(Superintendent Barry) Anderson and (Assistant Superintendent Doug) Robinson expect me to give my best every day,” Williams said. “I expect that from the staff, they expect that from the students. We have high expectations; we expect their best every single day.”
But striding hand-in-hand with demanding one’s best effort, is letting the students know they are loved. Genuinely.
“We’re gonna love them 100-percent,” Williams said. “If they have a problem, they need to know they can come to Mr. Williams, and I can be the principal, the father, the friend, whatever I need to be. We’re going to love them to death, we’re going to try our best to provide a safe place for them where they feel comfortable and secure.
“And at the end of the day, we’re going to teach them to take ownership and responsibility for their own actions, in their own lives. I think that’s something our society is missing. It’s always someone else’s fault, but actually, at the end of the day, I’m in control of me.”
As committed as Williams is to his career, it's his family that provides his inspiration. He gives thanks for their presence in his life, and without them he would not be the man he is today.
"My six-year daughter Cariann and my three-year old son Camden are my pride and joy; they brighten my day regardless if it’s been a good one or a bad one, they always welcome me with excitement and enthusiasm," Williams excitedly state. "My wife, Whitney, has supported me completely. Besides the Lord, she is my best friend.
“Without the upbringing I received, I hate to think how differently my life would have gone. Being raised by steadfast Christian parents provided me with the foundation I needed to be a father, husband, and teacher. My mom was the nurturer and my dad was the disciplinarian, and I have tried to be a mix of them both. I can confirm that parent involvement makes a huge difference!”