Meet Dr. Maria Williams-Hawkins, Associate Professor in our Telecommunications department. In this blog post, Dr. Maria — as her students call her — takes a walk down memory lane and pens an inspiring essay on the journey that led her to become the teacher that she is today.
Aphorisms, mantras and a few good scriptures have guided my path into teaching. I decided to go into journalism before I finished first grade. When I started my gossip filled, misspelled first newspaper, my parents closed my printing press. They took my big pencil. I grew up in a house with a teacher, my aunt, who talked about the challenges of helping students with no parental support. Although I heard her challenges, I also heard her talk about approaches she took to help the students achieve even when others had given up on them. I figured I would continue my plan to be a journalist but felt the need to help those with challenges. I kept thinking about “Do onto others as you would have them do unto you.”
While working on my degree in Radio-TV News at the University of Tennessee, Martin, I served as a volunteer teacher at a facility for emotionally challenged children. I learned a lot about how the family structure affected what students could comprehend in class, believe about themselves and determine how they see the world. The most painful lesson I learned was that when students grew up in families with a lot of anger, they could get violent when the things that triggered anger in their homes did not make their teachers angry. While 90% of the children in those classes were White, I was not. When one girl saw that calling me the “N” word numerous times did not make me angry, she stabbed me with some scissors. While stopping the bleeding and smiling at the same time was …challenging, I did it anyway. Thank goodness she could not read my mind. I reminded her of the correct way to use scissors and went on to the lesson. I asked the child why she used that word. She told me her aunts used it when they saw people like me. I told her that the word wasn’t going to make me angry so she should just forget about using it. I don’t know if she used it with others, but from that point on, she came up to hug me every day that I volunteered. That experience helped me when I returned to volunteer teaching in Memphis on my off days from the TV station. Severely handicapped students were just like emotionally challenged students. They were just students.
I kept thinking about “Do onto others as you would have them do unto you.”
Although my UTM teachers knew I would do something, I wasn’t White, blond or beautiful so they weren’t sure I would get a job in television. I did. After completing my training and getting my first promotion, I asked to offer special classes for the employees who were not going through their training well. I knew they would be fired soon. The station manager agreed to allow me to hold special classes, create study materials and develop my own training program. Some trainees decided to work with me, others figured they would do well on their own. All my trainees kept their jobs and the directors asked for them to work on their shifts. I recalled what it was like being trained by guys who doubted your ability to succeed. I knew that people find success when someone believes in them.
When I lost both my grandparents and learned, from a shop steward’s perspective, what it was like to fight with the New York Times’ legal team, I decided to go earn my Master’s degree at Central Missouri State University. As a News Director GA, I could teach students how to write and produce their newscasts and host some TV shows. While studying and working in an extremely racist environment on the job, I knew I would move on as soon as the degree was complete. My department chair, however, knew the environment in which I was working but had observed my response to things that were going on. He started asking me what I would do when my thesis was complete. I told him I would go back to television. He asked how students who wanted to have Black professors would be encouraged in college. I told him they would go to HCBUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities). He asked about students who could only afford to go to PWI (Predominantly White Institutions). I told him they would find their way. I found Black professionals from high school throughout college. I figured they could do the same. My chair wanted me to think about Black students in PWI classrooms. Determined to change the landscape, he took the time to tell a Sam Houston State University department chair about me. That chair called me and I was hired before the end of the day.
I learned that teachers don’t just deliver lectures, they deliver behaviors that teach others how to speak and act.
While writing my thesis, I lived for Saturday reruns of the TV show “Kung Fu”. The aphorisms in that show encouraged me. For some reason, one of those aphorisms stayed on my mind: “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” That aphorism came to my mind over and over when my White students kept telling me they had never had a Black teacher before. They couldn’t understand why they had to do what I said. The first semester was awful. White students had their parents call the chair. My News course was comprised of students who had flunked out and were brought back to finish their degrees. They thought they would get a passing grade just because they registered. They never dreamed that they would have to write or really cover stories. Black students wanted me to just give them grades because we were both Black. It was trying. I realized I would have to teach by the bank robber’s aphorism: “Do what I say and nobody gets hurt. “ Fortunately, the chair and the media professionals I worked with in Houston saw that the students now had a teacher with professional expectations. I taught at Sam Houston for ten years. In that time, I realized my teaching and presence was not just to benefit Black students. I was there for the Hispanic students, the Asian students, White female students, gay students and a lot of students who never understood what it meant to be held accountable no matter what ethnic group they represented. I learned that teachers don’t just deliver lectures, they deliver behaviors that teach others how to speak and act. The biggest change that took place over that time was my aphorism. Because of the diversity of my students and getting to know their experiences at a deeper level, I learned that: “When the teacher is ready, the student will appear.” My role as teacher moved from training them for the profession. They sought to applying what I had learned about their cultures in ways that permitted me to help them reach their goals. I needed to be able to see my students. Media professionals called me when they were looking for talented new hires.
When life sends challenges that cause us to shift from the A level of behavior, we must all remember to keep moving and work towards the A, no matter how challenging.
When you teach over a number of years, you change generations of students. My first cohort of students were actually two years younger than I was. That means I’ve gone from the last of the Boomers to Gen Z. The student population at BSU now, is still like the Boomers I taught originally. The difference is the way they see life. They still want to know why they have to do what they are told. Now, their experiences are so different that we must, as teachers, keep in mind that the education system has taught them that good teachers tell them what you need to know for the test, always forgive if they slip up and don’t hold anything against them. So, the aphorism I give this generation is: Begin where you want to end. “ This aphorism is used in script writing and business. If you want to make an A, do the things requested of those people who are on the A path.
Like all professors, as a student, faculty member, pastor, person, I have, from time to time, made some mistakes. So, I tell my students one other thing. “Keep moving and don’t give up. When life sends challenges that cause us to shift from the A level of behavior, we must all remember to keep moving and work towards the A, no matter how challenging. Don’t give up. Remember: Do what I say and no one will get hurt.”