Collegiate is fortunate to have Mr. Stew Williamson as a part of the community. He teaches physics, coaches soccer, and sponsors Interact. On the surface, this is a typical description of a Collegiate teacher. But there is more to Mr. Williamson. He is passionate about helping kids learn in whatever way he can. Grayson Richmond (‘17) says, “you just walk up and ask him your problem, and he will explain it to you as many times and ways as you need.” It was his passion for teaching and his natural tendency to take teaching one step beyond what is expected that made him one of 105 science and math teachers from all over the country who won the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching in 2015.
Growing up in the town of Harvard, Massachusetts, Mr. Williamson liked to learn. He claims that while he “was engaged, it didn’t always stick,” and although he was not the best at languages, he always found those classes fun. When he was in seventh grade, he had a math teacher, Kit Norris, who worked with him for three days after school until he could get a grasp on negative numbers. He says that she “showed that persistence, and showed that caring, and showed that kindness to students in need is the best way to learn”. Because of her work, he went into college interested in math, eventually thinking he would be a math teacher. Coincidentally, Kit Norris later went on to earn the same award Mr. Williamson would win 21 years later. After high school, Mr. Williamson attended Middlebury College, where he played college soccer, was a chemistry major, and had a minor in education. Although he was the backup goalie on the soccer team, he said he would watch the starting goalie to learn from him. Even then, he knew “I’m going to be a coach one day because I’m going to be working at a school,” and while doing this he “took notes on the sidelines and was the [team’s] biggest cheerleader.”
He did fulfill his dreams of teaching and taught at the Kent School before earning his Masters in Education from Boston University. After earning that degree, Mr. Williamson began teaching at Masconomet Regional High School, until 2005, when he began teaching at the People’s Academy in Vermont. There he was planning on teaching chemistry, but learned he would also be teaching AP Physics. He says that “physics brought back that love of math” that he had from high school and college. At the People’s Academy, Mr. Williamson developed his “Understanding by Design” model. The idea of this model is to look at the K-12 curriculum to see the overarching themes, and to make sure that starting in Kindergarten, the kids begin to learn these main themes. Mr. Williamson led the design of the school’s K-12 science curriculum and over three years worked to find its eight main themes. Through the years, these themes would be visited from various perspectives in different science classes. Additionally, Mr. Williamson and two other teachers started Youth and Adults Transforming Schools Together (YATST). As an extension of the “Understanding by Design” model, kids were involved in the creation of the curriculum by giving insight into the ways in which kids learn best.
Mr. Williamson had never heard of the PAEMST award before two people recommended he apply. So, in 2013, Mr. Williamson set up a video camera in order to give insight into the heart of his classroom. In the lab his class was doing that day, he says that the kids were making connections and remembers thinking “even if it doesn’t get the award, this is such a good day,” which shows how he values his students learning more than any award. However, on July 1, 2015, Mr. Williamson learned that he won when he received a call from the FBI, looking to do a background check before he could come to Washington D.C. to meet the president and be recognized.
Over the four-day award program, various speakers presented. Mr. Williamson remembers being told “now that you are an excellent teacher, you are also a leader,” by a speaker on the first day. The award winners met President Obama and his advisors and had meetings with members of NASA. Mr. Williamson said that Obama came into the room they were in, talked to each one of them, and shook each of their hands. Obama described his program of 100K in 10, where he has tried to encourage ten thousand new STEM teachers in the next ten years. This program has been going on for the past five years and has reached half of its goal. By receiving this award, Mr. Williamson was able to get the recognition he deserved from his years of work with “Understanding by Design” and YATST.
Mr. Williamson came to Collegiate after contacting a fellow Middlebury graduate, former Upper School science teacher Pascal Losambe, who encouraged Mr. Williamson to apply for an open physics position in the fall of 2014. At Collegiate, Mr. Williamson is a member of the Technology Committee, science department, and the “What Will a Collegiate Graduate Look Like?” committee. He sees the value in others’ perspectives and has brought his collaboration skills from previous jobs to working with teachers and students here.
Besides from being a talented teacher, Mr. Williamson likes to spend time with his wife and eight-year-old son outdoors, whether it is on beach, at the mountains, or down on the James. Also, they enjoy checking out Richmond’s burgeoning restaurant scene.