My latest educational conversation is with MNPS’s Interim Chief Academic Officer David Williams. We meet at his house where he lays out a spread that includes smoked wings and ribs. The food is delicious and the conversation is equally interesting.
Williams has had an interesting journey in order to reach his current outpost. He wasn’t born with the teaching bug, but once bitten, he pursued it rigorously. He’s worked in the classroom, as an administrator, and for the TNDOE. All of which gives him unique insight into the field of education.
DGW: Now that we’ve gorged ourselves on ribs and chicken wings, let’s talk about your history. You grew up in Tennessee, right?
David: I grew up in Nashville, for my formative years. I was born in South Bend, Indiana. I moved to Nashville when I was an infant, lived here for a few years, and then moved out to California. I lived in the Bay Area, we’re talking about the ages between two and four. Before I was four, we lived in Indiana, Tennessee, and California. Then when I was four, we returned to Nashville, literally the exact same house that we left, over in Crieve Hall.
I went to Norman Binkley, Rose Park, and then McMurray for one year. My father got a job offer with somebody he used to work with down in Jacksonville, Florida. I have an older sister and a younger sister, and my parents took us all out to the Quincy’s. I remember they had this serious look on their faces. “Your dad used to work with somebody at Genesco. They’re interested in him working for Stein Mart in the corporate office, which is in Jacksonville, Florida. This is going to be a family decision. All five of us have to agree to go. If one of us wants to stay, we’ll stay.”
My older sister was a sophomore at Overton, I’d just finished seventh grade at McMurray, and my younger sister had finished fourth grade over at Norman Binkley. We all just decided to go. If it was a good opportunity for our family, then we’d go. We moved down the summer between my seventh and eighth-grade year. I stayed down there until I graduated high school.
My parents then moved back up to Tennessee, to Murfreesboro. My older sister was in Jacksonville for two years, graduated, and then she moved back up and went to Lipscomb. I went to Auburn. My younger sister graduated a year early from Riverdale in Rutherford Co. and also went to Lipscomb. We never felt comfortable or at home in Florida. Nashville’s always been our home base, so we’re all back up here now.
DGW: Your parents are a lot kinder than my parents. I grew up a military brat, so we moved all the time. With my parents, it was never a vote. They would gather us around and say. “We’re leaving. The moving trucks will be here in two weeks.” I moved to Pennsylvania during my freshman year in high school. I went from being a promising young actor in a school that did three plays a year – including a competition play – to being at a school in Pennsylvania that did one musical a year. It was traumatic. What made you choose to go to Auburn?
David: Geography. It was halfway between Florida and Nashville. My dad had moved back here, while my mom stayed down there to sell the house and take care of some business. It was a big school, which was important because I wasn’t 100% sure what I wanted to do.
Initially, I thought about Lipscomb because my dad and my older sister were there. But, Auburn had a good Christian Student Center that I had become part of. I wanted to play basketball as a walk-on, but a week before tryouts I tore my ACL for the second time. Previously I had torn it in high school. After the second time, I decided it was God’s way of telling me to get an education and give up on a basketball career.
DGW: While you were in 7th grade at McMurray, a bunch of other current MNPS principals were running around South Nashville at the time. Did you know any of them in middle school?
David: Chad High and I grew up playing baseball together. I’ve known the High family for a long time. Didn’t know him super well, but when you both come from the same neighborhood, you develop a certain understanding. Having that long-time relationship has been beneficial.
DGW: When you went to Auburn, did you know that you were going to study education?
David: I started out in electrical engineering and decided to switch my major that fall into pure mathematics. My mom’s brother got his Ph.D. in mathematics from Michigan, and when I talked about wanting to shift into education, he said, “Get a degree in math, not in Math Ed. If you enjoy teaching, great. You’ll know your math really well. If not, you’ll have other options.”
I heeded his advice and got an undergraduate degree in pure mathematics with the intent to go on and teach. I decided around my sophomore year that I wanted to be a math teacher. But it wasn’t an easy choice. Every time I tried to sign up for an education course at Auburn, they were closed, full. Being as I was in the College of Science and Math instead of Education, I wasn’t able to sign up for any education classes. I took some developmental psychology classes to get started in that direction, but I knew I would have to backtrack to get my education. I left Auburn and went to Wake Forest to get my education degree. I went to Atlanta, and I taught there for three years.
DGW: I didn’t know that. In Cobb County?
David: North Fulton in Fulton County Schools. There are Atlanta Public Schools and Fulton county. I taught in Fulton County, which is the county system, not the city system.
DGW: Which is where Williamson County’s Mike Looney is now superintendent.
David: Mike Looney’s down at Fulton County, which is ironic because my next stop was Williamson County. I taught for three years at Ravenwood. Coached basketball – I was like a JV or assistant varsity coach and got paired up with Rodney Thweatt, who is still at Hillsboro HS. At the time, I was really interested in being a basketball coach.
That’s where I was when I was in my early to mid-twenties. Rodney and I came from Ravenwood together over to Hillsboro HS. That was in 2006. I continued to coach basketball there and teach math – I did that from 2006-2011 at Hillsboro.
DGW: Now at Hillsboro, without getting too much into details, you experienced what controversy and scrutiny look like up close, because at that time there was a huge controversy going on about AP courses, the IB program, and the different kinds of advanced academics. Again, without getting too involved in the actual cause, what lessons did you take away from that?
David: There are a few takeaways. I grew as a teacher, as a professional, more at Hillsboro than I have anywhere else. A large part of that was the network of teachers I was part of. When you talk about the heart of a teacher, mine really experienced tremendous growth at Hillsboro. There were some really great educators, many of whom I still talk to today.
When you have that shared experience of going through difficult times, as you referenced, the bonds and the relationships that you establish are what see you through those challenging times.
The other takeaway was the opportunity to see kids rally in a way that would make any parent proud. We were filled with pride as teachers when they rallied to the defense of one of their teachers that they thought was being treated wrongly. They staged some very peaceful protests, they wrote letters, they continued to do their school work at a high level – all as a means for standing up for what they believed in.
When you think about what kids are capable of – being mature, being articulate, standing up for a cause they believe in – we often underestimate them. I think about this from time to time. It taught me that you can play political games or you can stick to your principles and your values. I chose to stick to my principles.
I spoke up at a school board meeting in defense of Mary Catherine Bradshaw. People in the central office probably frowned upon that, but I thought it was the right thing to do, and I would do it again a hundred times. Things turn out in the right way if you stick to your principles, do the right thing, and believe that things will work out the way they should.
DGW: People might not be familiar with the situation, but it was quite controversial. There were a lot of different sides to it, a lot of different avenues. We are all made up of the experiences we face. You never know how you would handle a potential crisis or how you would talk to the media or how you would address stakeholders until you’ve actually been through something on a high level like that. Fortunately, those kinds of high-level discussions, those passionate discussions, don’t come along very often. We often talk in the field of education about kids learning, but we don’t talk about adult learning. And this was definitely a learning experience. From Hillsboro, you went to work for the state for a while, correct?
David: I went to Oliver for one year. There were two coaches at the time. I was up in my office, and the principal called me and she said, “I’ve got to cut one and she’s been here longer. You’ve been here for a year, so I’ve got to let you go.”
DGW: First man in, first man out?
David: That’s right. When I spoke up at that school board meeting, I was trying to pursue administrative positions. In 2010, I got my admin license. I had interviewed for a few assistant principal positions and didn’t land one. I was teaching, but also trying to knock on a few doors and see if anything would open.
I kept trying to pursue administrative positions. I interviewed for the job at Overton at the time, which would have been January of 2012, and didn’t get that job. I kept getting turned down. I was not in the assistant principal pool at the time in Metro, but I applied for a job in Williamson County and got hired in three days.
In the meantime, I requested a meeting with someone in the central office to help me understand that. I said, “I’m just really curious, I’ve been in the assistant principal pool for the last two years and I’m not this year. I want to know why. I also would like for you to try to explain to me why I can go apply for a job in the most successful and ‘the best district of the state of Tennessee’ and get hired in a few days and I can’t even get an interview in this district. I just want an answer.” I was basically told, “You shouldn’t have spoken up at the school board meeting.” That was, well, I knew what it was. I wanted somebody to say it. So I said, “Okay.” Long story short, I went back to Centennial in Williamson County–
It all came back to those events that you’ve asked me about. It certainly stung, but I’ve learned from it.
Placed in the same position, I would speak up at the school board meeting every time. It was my thought that if they could do that to her (Mary Catherine), then they could do that to any teacher, and that’s not right. I approached it as me speaking up for someone which is not the same thing as speaking against someone.
People said, “Are you afraid to go back and teach? What are they going to do?” I said, “Let them come after me. I’m going to teach, I’m going to keep teaching my kids. If they want to come after me, fine.” That was my attitude at the time.
DGW: What was your position with the State Department of Education?
David: The first position I had started in August. Kevin Huffman had just recently been hired as the State Commissioner of Education. At the time, there were these regional offices. They were established to be geographically in closer proximity to districts. If you had federal monitoring, or you have exceptional education monitoring or anything, this puts people geographically closer to the districts so they could support and monitor them.
Kevin Huffman had this idea: “Let’s rebrand or reposition these regional offices to be more instructional support than just oversight.” This was, if you remember, at the birth of the Common Core standards. The idea was, “Let’s reposition these regional offices around the state and rebrand them but repurpose them as well.” Putting the emphasis on instruction, not just monitoring and accountability. I was one of the first hired when they were rebranding these regional offices. They put a math person in place, a data person, and a new executive director. Over time, they’ve added a literacy lead or an RTI person, as they’ve tried to expand those teams.
These regional offices worked a little more closely with smaller districts that don’t have the same infrastructure as Metro has. I worked in one of the eight regional offices, and there were about 17 or 18 districts that we supported from Dixon to some others like Robertson, Williamson, and Metro, of course. That’s the mid-Cumberland region.
That lasted until December because Tammy Parsons texted me and said, “Hey, David. The math coordinator position with the State Department is up, and I thought you’d be great. I wanted you to know and I think you should apply.” So I did and got that job.
DGW: So here’s where we continue with our theme of being part of controversy and lessons learned. Agree or disagree with his policies, the Huffman years were lightning-rod years. Very scrutinized and there was a lot of questioning of his leadership.
Once again, you find yourself in a situation where there’s a lot of controversies, a lot of scrutiny, and a lot of questioning of ideals. How did that impact you?
David: I was, probably, not as privy to or aware of, maybe even interested in a lot that was going on. I was the math coordinator, so I had a very small, specific job. The controversy came in because we were trying to roll in Common Core, which was big because of its impact in regard to local control and the national landscape.
I was a little more insulated, but not completely immune. Some people would raise questions when it came to math standards, but they were more straight forward. I would venture to say that the literacy standards stirred up a little more controversy than math. Though math wasn’t without its detractors because people thought we were going backward.
I would get emails from people who thought we had tried this experiment in Russia 50 years ago. That the math standards were not as rigorous as they needed to be. That they weren’t any good, that they were written by people who were not math teachers or not math-minded people. I would have to deal with those emails on a case-to-case basis.
I did testify in front of the State Senate Education Subcommittee. They literally went in there and read every single ELA and math standard, word for word. That took about a day and a half, I think. I’ll never forget that.
There were a few questions about the math, but my job and was to focus on the content of the standards. Then, as a team, it was, “How do we manage the political controversies?” So, with my boss, my supervisors, the rest of my team, whenever there was a controversy or a question, we would figure it out together.
DGW: Let’s fast forward here. I’m seeing a common theme beginning to emerge and to be honest with you, it is one I wouldn’t have predicted before we talked. You leave the state and return to MNPS. What was the first role that brought you back to MNPS?
David: Director of Math.
DGW: You were there for one year, before Shawn Joseph arrived and once again, you’re thrust into a situation with a lot of controversies, a lot of scrutiny, a lot of tension, a lot of questioning. Did you draw on any of your past experiences to navigate those waters?
David: Yes, definitely. Remember, in my mind, I focus on the task that needs to be done, I’ll complete it, and try to excel at whatever that is. But I’m not somebody who started out in education as a teacher working to be a superintendent one day. That never crossed my mind, and it still doesn’t cross my mind. I’m more task-centric.
Whatever the task is, I want to figure out the best way to do it, out of principle and what’s best for kids, what’s best for teachers. I’m big on focusing on the team I work with, and the people I can influence directly. I always talk to them about what is our aim, what’s our purpose, and how you do that is how you extract meaning from what you do.
How you do it is just as important to me as getting to the goal. When I talk to my team, it may sound cheesy, but I preach norms and values. I think it’s absolutely, critically important.
You have to focus on what’s best for kids, what’s best for teachers, and then, as I’m acting out my goals and my work, I’ve got to do it in a way that’s based on principle, that’s based on ethics. I take all that very seriously, and I talk about it a lot to my team because I want them to do the same thing.
DGW: Now you’re heading into another role and once again, you’re part of a team that’s moving into a lot of scrutiny and a lot of tension. As someone who has experienced that at a high level on more than one occasion, more so than anyone on the team, your insight brings additional value to the team. Your experience makes you a valuable asset to draw upon and say, “Hey, David. You’ve seen these things with previous administrations…” Or you can say, “Dr. Battle, I’ve seen people go down this road before, here’s something we might want to avoid.”
Based on your experiences, is there a common theme that you’ve ever seen where leadership clearly took the wrong path? Because in all three of the circumstances we discussed, whether it be Dr. Joseph, Kevin Huffman, arguably even Mary Catherine Bradshaw, you witnessed first hand the actions of people who did not succeed. Some of it brought on by themselves, some due to outside forces.
Is there a common theme in any of those? Something that you would take forward with you and say, “I need to avoid going down that road.” Or as a team, “We need to go down this road, instead of going in that road.”
David: I don’t know if I’ve ever thought about it in that way. I think I always try to think about my basketball coaches and I tried to learn from the good and bad. What did they do that I can emulate? What did they not do that I’m not going to do?
DGW: I wasn’t trying to paint those past associations in a negative light. If you’ve ever managed people, you’ve experienced situations that have gotten out of your control, and as a result, you’ve lost the troops for whatever reason. It happens to every manager. The difference-maker is in self-evaluation: “Where did I lose them? How could have I changed outcomes?”
Sometimes you lose people through no fault of your own. Maybe you just didn’t see the problem coming, and it caught you off guard. How do you avoid that in the future?
David: I think by just being honest. You have to keep it honest and real. I think that the people who work with me, I would hope they would say, “David will be very honest with you. And he’ll communicate.” I’m not perfect, but I try to conduct myself in a way that will make my mom proud.
I would say that when I think about decisions, and I think about the politics that are inherent in this position, if you do your job in a way that tries to play politics above the work or the principles, then you get stuck in a cycle that you can never win. And you’ll never get out of it. Because if I play politics with someone and I’m trying to do that all the time, it can consume you but then you back yourself into a corner where that becomes all you do.
If I can push myself and push those whom I can influence in a way that really aims to get results and where you conduct yourself in a manner that reflects your intentions well, who’s going to question it?
DGW: One last thought on that. Politics gets a bad rep, but you have to have a political sense about you or else you’ll never get policies enacted. If you’re constantly clinging to ideals and refusing to recognize the politics, then that becomes a deterrent to making progress. You have to find the right balance. An idealist with no political skills is as bad as a political hack. It’s the melding of the two that leads to the best administrators.
David: That’s what I’m saying. You can’t be naive or ignore those realities, but if your work is nested inside them, that’s not the work.
DGW: Well said. Thanks for your time. I look forward to talking more in the future.
I enjoyed my time with Dr. Williams. In all my conversations with him, it is clear he values the lessons of his family and conducts himself in a manner that would make them proud. He’s what is commonly referred to as “a good guy.” A standard he constantly tries to live up to. Here’s hoping he can help lead MNPS on the pathway to success.