Mothering suited Jennifer Williams so well she relayed the skills she learned raising three children into a second career – awarding-winning middle school teacher. Big-time award-winning, in fact. After  15 years using natural nurturing techniques teaching 6th and 8th grade English at John Q. Adams Middle School in Metairie, The Milken Family Foundation chose her recently as a recipient of its prestigious educator award. Winning a Milken anoints Williams as education royalty, so to speak, and also brings a handsome monetary award – $25,000.

The secret ingredients of her success in the classroom – as measured by student performance – evolved from years at home with her own children.  

“It’s that motherly thing that makes you know what kids want,” Williams said.  “I don’t always focus on the teaching. If I focus on the relationships, the rest of it comes naturally.” 

Williams says the power of love works wonders, even with 8th graders focused on the “cool” factor. When children feel safe, she says, they follow guidance and do their best at tasks to please her. Flashing an occasional expression of incredulity, also helps.  

 “I have that ‘Mama’ tone,” she said.  “I just give them the look.”    

To build relationships, she talks to students about their special interests and family life, and attends extra-curricular activities such as sports events and music recitals. She keeps extra backpacks and other frequently lost items on hand, just as a parent would, to minimize the trauma of such events, especially for children whose parents can’t afford replacements.  Attention to emotional needs, even for the most difficult students, eventually pays off.

One child, she remembered vividly. The girl “hated everybody,” and Williams admitted to having days that she didn’t like the girl either. But, instead of ignoring her, she found tasks for the girl to do to make her feel special. One Christmas, much to her surprise, the girl rewarded Williams’ patient persistence by giving her a necklace with a dangling “J” pendent, the first letter of her first name.

The relationship factor also showed its results in a small group of struggling children she taught for three straight years. Poor academic results indicated a need for reading intervention.  After the third year of small group teaching, their test scores soared beyond expectations.  “That’s when I knew that the relationships you build with them are really important and can make all the difference in the world,” she said.

As an English teacher, she also uses the power of “sense of place”, a literary term referring to a unique location that brings meaningful texture to the core content. To create a relaxed classroom atmosphere, she incorporates yoga balls and other anti-anxiety details. She posts favorite images on her bulletin board.

“Everyone calls my classroom the Pinterest Classroom,” she said, referring to the social media image-sharing site. 

On Fridays, just for fun, the lights go out and students work by flashlight. Other days, rap songs teach figurative language. 

Winning a Milken award never crossed her mind. The day of the announcement, she had been focusing on quieting the noise around her. It took a while to notice that the important-looking man addressing the school assembly, Foundation Founder Lowell Milken, called her name.  

“I was almost embarrassed,” Williams said. “I couldn’t stop crying. Even some of the boys were crying. It was the sweetest thing.”