story and photos by Roy Hill
When Van Buren English teacher Chandra Brotherton nominated Elizabeth Williams for Van Buren’s Teacher of the Year award, the first sentence she wrote on the official form read, “Elizabeth is the rock of the English department.”
Winning both the Van Buren High School Teacher of the Year and the Van Buren School District’s Secondary Teacher of the Year for 2009 further solidifies Williams’ strong and stabilizing presence in the school system she’s served for 30 years.
“The honor was being nominated by my peers back in April,” Williams said. “Winning was a surprise to me.”
Her three adult children had varying reactions to the news of their mothers’ award.
“Sarah, who lives in Austin was very happy, and I could hear her and the kids jumping up and down,” Williams explained. “I called Mark, and he wondered why it had taken so long. And when I called John in Houston, he wanted to know if the award had any money included.”
Family was a major reason Williams returned to Crawford County to teach for the Van Buren School District 30 years ago.
“We were in Wichita, Kan, and we decided the kids needed to be raised in a place where people knew who they were. So we moved back to the family farm in Crawford County. And when the youngest started kindergarten, I started teaching.”
Williams still lives on the same family farm in Oak Grove, between Kibler and Van Buren. Her mother, Betty Williams, lives on the farm with her along with brother Fred, sister-in-law Shirley and her uncle John Williams and her aunt Jane. Williams cites the support of her family and community for her abilities and her long successful career.
“I am the product of people who loved me and cared for me,” Williams said. “I feel an obligation for that.”
Williams looked to one of her own teachers for inspiration, Grace Barlow, for whom the Van Buren High School library is named.
“One thing I took from her is that I set a high standard for my students,” Williams said. “I like to think that I give them [students] a little more control and flexibility, and ask them to peer review more. Back when I was in school, the teachers lectured, and I took notes.”
Williams began her career at the old Van Buren Junior High, teaching 8th grade. She also established the Gifted and Talented program in at the Van Buren Middle School in the 1980s. Some of Williams’ former students have gone on to take prominent roles in the community.
Alice Humphrey took Williams’ class in the 8th grade. Today, she’s an instructional facilitator at King Elementary in Van Buren and holds degrees from both the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville and the University of Arkansas-Little Rock. Humphrey tries to model some of Williams’ style in her own job.
“[Williams] can find the very best in her students and teach to their strengths,” Humphrey noted. “She loved what she taught, and she made us love it, too.”
Randy McClaren, an engineer with Bekaert, also took Williams’ class while in the 8th grade.
"She is a teacher who really cares for her students," McClaren said. "In her class, it wasn’t us just coming in to do a set thing. We had a flow. It was very class oriented, and we could communicate with each other and her. We got to go into topics that interested us, and it was more of a discussion. She 100 percent deserves the Teacher of the Year award.”
Van Buren dentist Mark Hurst recalls being in Williams’ Gifted and Talented program during his days at Van Buren Junior High. Hurst graduated from Ouachita Baptist University and then went on to the LSU School of Dentistry in New Orleans.
“I remember how challenging she was,” Hurst said. “She made us think on our own. Her class wasn’t fill in the blanks; we had to really think. … I can remember in her class that we were always doing a project. She let us have a lot of freedom, and we could work at our own pace, but we all knew we better get our work done, and it better be right. She was not a pushover at all. You knew you better get your work done.”
One constant in Williams’ three-decade career has been the relationships she builds with students. But she’s also seen plenty of changes.
“The way students can research today,” Williams said when asked what is different. “They can’t even fathom using a card catalog with real cards. Today everything is online or electronic.”
Another change Williams sees is the nature of the student body in Van Buren.
“It used to be that I knew the kids and their families,” said Williams. “I could look at a class and say I taught her dad, and her dad, and his mother, but it’s getting harder to do that with all the people moving in.”
No matter the changes, Williams still sees teaching as a demanding career that requires a certain type of person.
“Teaching is a calling,” Williams said. “Make sure it is something you are called to do. The work is too hard if you aren’t called. I’d rather teach than eat. If you don’t love it you can’t do it. I’ll teach until it becomes a job. When it becomes a job, I’ll stop.”