Alicia Williams is often mistaken for a kindergarten teacher.
And sure, she’s put some serious thought into going that route one day, but she actually got her start in Arizona’s education system teaching middle school social studies.
“And if you can teach middle school, you can do anything,” she said.
Williams may not have entirely believed that herself before joining the State Board of Education, but now, she’s the executive director at 32.
I truly believe you meet people at the right time to push you into your next role or job or life event. … I didn’t know why someone would pick me for this job. Policy and politics and government is not my background. I’m a teacher. I’m an administrator. … When Carol Schmidt resigned last year, I didn’t apply. Like it was open for about a month, and I didn’t apply right away. And really, it was a lot of soul-searching, like could I do this job knowing the stresses that come with it. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t scared when they announced my name or when I knew the board was going to vote on my hiring. I was petrified. But I go back to my college basketball days. There’s always going to be someone who thinks you can’t do it, so prove them wrong.
The board noted you are a young leader in education. It seems that there are a lot of young leaders emerging in education. Do you identify with that trend?
I’m not a political person. I tend to be like straight down the middle, and ultimately, my goal is always what’s best for kids. But I think that we’ve seen a national trend with women taking higher positions in government, and I think it’s cool. I’m interested to see how the young people shake things up, not just women but the men, too, who are young and have fresh ideas. My role’s a little bit different, so my opinions sometimes don’t matter because it’s about the board. I’m a servant of the board, and I take that very seriously.
Your previous work for the board involved disciplining teachers. What was that like?
There’s no teacher oath, but you pledge to protect your students. You would do anything for your students. That’s like your mini family for 45 minutes before the bell rings. So sometimes when teachers cross those lines, it’s very difficult to read and understand. Look at an extreme case when the board votes to revoke a certificate. Yes, that teacher’s losing their livelihood, but at the same time, we’re protecting students from something terrible happening again. You want to ensure that you’re looking at the act that was done… but then also allowing that person to come to talk about what happened.
Do you ever find yourself thinking about teaching again?
All the time. … Member Jill Broussard invited me to go to a high school, and they were having their homecoming pep rally. Just to see all those high school kids, it was just so cool. At the end of the day, it’s really important for me and also for my staff to go to schools and to listen to the administrators and teachers and remember why we do this. That whole place was loud and they were cheering and the freshmen were going after the seniors, and it was just phenomenal. You kind of forget that when you’re out of the classroom. And as much as I love high schoolers, I love kindergartners, too. They’re learning new things every day, and it reminds you how fun learning can be when you sit with a group of 5-year-olds. They always ask the darndest questions. Usually, it’s when I’m reading a book and they ask a crazy question about the illustration. Like I don’t know why the dinosaur is purple. He ate a lot of grapes that day.
I miss just being able to go into a classroom and experience love. Even if I had to just give a kid detention–still happy to see you. Or walking into a cafeteria filled with kids, and they’re stoked to see you, telling you about their corn dogs.
You mentioned you played college basketball.
I remember in my senior year, I knew that whatever I did, my siblings would eventually follow. If I made good choices, my siblings would. But I didn’t know how I would pay for college, so I was thinking about joining the military. I went to a recruiter and all that stuff, and a week later, I got a call from the University of Mount Union. They wanted me to come play basketball for them. D-3 schools don’t give you full rides, so I was still working a lot at the grocery store and I did the team’s laundry. … I am very blessed.
Do you play anymore?
I do. I will go to the gym and shoot hoops. And I am great–ok, that’s a little boastful. I’m decent. … I cannot play a pickup game, and this is why. I’m always the only female on the basketball court. If a gentleman comes up to me and says they have nine players, will I be their tenth, I’ll be like, “Sure.” But in my mind, I am classically trained, which is a funny thing to say. It was a full-time job in college, so there are certain things in my mind that I cannot turn off. I know how to play. When I play pickup, sometimes pickup doesn’t follow the rules, and I get very frustrated with that. Plus, they do not pass me the ball!
I specifically remember this one time. I’m very tall. I’m a very big person. And I was a center. And I know how to post up. And I know how to do a hook shot. And I know how to make a layup. This guy who was probably 5’7” was guarding me. I’m posting him up, and they would not pass me the ball. I’m like, “Give me the ball. I will hip-check him, and I will score.” And I remember some random guy came in and started yelling at my teammate to pass me the ball. This is why I don’t play pickup. They just assume I don’t know how to play. … But I know how to move people out of the way.