From the Navy to the Classroom: A Veteran’s Journey as an Inspiring Teacher

From the Navy to the Classroom: A Veteran’s Journey as an Inspiring Teacher

Antoinette Williams (then Thibou) in Navy uniform next to current-day Williams sporting West Valley Middle School gear.

Students in Antoinette Williams’ seventh-grade social studies class spent a portion of this week writing cards to veterans as a way to enhance the lessons they’re learning in the classroom.

As they talked about veterans and active military in their own families, they learned that their very own teacher served the country.

In 1990, Williams decided to enlist in the military with a dear friend, and after meeting with a recruiter, she chose to join the Navy.

She attended boot camp in October of that year and finished in time to be home for Christmas. 

“One of the best experiences was when we graduated and went to Orlando. We got to be in our uniforms, so everyone knew we were military,” Williams said. “We didn’t have a lot of badges or pins, so everybody knew we were new, but everyone was so friendly.”

Other memories were “not as fun,” like midnight watch duty or working in the galley of the ship, but all of her experiences gave her a strong work ethic that she carries over into the classroom.

When she left the military after nearly four years of service, she went back to school, but didn’t initially get a degree in education.

“I think I always wanted to be a teacher, but I was a communications major for undergrad,” she said. “Once I started working with children more, I just one day said, ‘I think I want to be a teacher,’ out loud. I applied to the UT teaching program, and I’ve been doing this for 23 years.”

All these years later, Veterans Day still means so much to Williams, especially with several family members who have also served. She still gets emotional remembering how proud her father-in-law was to be a veteran of the country. 

“I know a ton of veterans and their families that put their whole heart into it every day,” Williams said. “We need to think about them more than just on Veterans Day. We need to think about them almost every day because the reason that we have our freedoms is because somebody is not with their family and they’re defending us in whatever way possible.”

KCS celebrated veterans, Guard members, and reservists at the Honoring Service Ceremony earlier this week, where a video featuring several KCS veterans was premiered for the first time. The full video is shown below.

Compassionate Principal Goes Above and Beyond to Empower Students in a Nontraditional Setting

Compassionate Principal Goes Above and Beyond to Empower Students in a Nontraditional Setting

When he steps out of his office, J.D. Faulconer is almost immediately surrounded by students offering fist bumps and asking for snacks.

He’s only been the principal of Dr. Paul L. Kelley Volunteer Academy (KVA) since the summer, but has already built a great reputation with students.

KVA is a non-traditional high school for seniors needing to make up credits to graduate.

“You’re getting to know kids, and you’re quickly forming that bond and relationship with them,” Faulconer said. “Then the next day they ring that bell and they’re done. It’s tough sometimes, but it’s all for the kids.”

Faulconer said a lot of the students who enter the school have not had good experiences in the principal’s office, and he aims to change that viewpoint.

“We try to create a culture in a small amount of time where kids feel loved, protected, respected, and taken care of,” he said. “I want them to realize this isn’t the place where you come just when you’re in trouble, but this is a place where you come when you’re hungry or you need someone to talk to.”

This experience in an administrative role comes from over a dozen years in a school building.

He became a special education teacher in Anderson County where he first ventured into administration at elementary and middle schools. When he accepted a position as a high school principal in Corbin, Kentucky, he began a stretch of three years commuting about three hours to and from Anderson County each day.

“I spent many nights sleeping in my office because I couldn’t get over Jellico Mountain in the snow,” Faulconer said. “But we made it work. Then almost overnight I accepted a job in Knox County to open Career Magnet Academy.”

Ever since that first day in a classroom, Faulconer has remembered why he entered this profession in the first place, and no matter where he ends up within the educational system, he’ll always keep those values close to heart.

“At the end of the day, we didn’t start in public education to sit in a principal seat. We started to make an impact on kids, and we don’t forget that,” he said. “That’s what we’re driven by every single day.”

Tutoring Changes Outcomes for Students and Teachers

Tutoring Changes Outcomes for Students and Teachers

Science teacher Matthew Walker tutors a student after school in Central High’s library.

Nearly every day after the final bell, students gather in the Central High library for an hour of tutoring.

Central’s program, like so many others across Knox County Schools, offers free tutoring in math, science, and English four days a week.

It’s in these sessions that math teacher and program coordinator Andrew Turner sees an impact on students and teachers.

“We talk about resilience and finishing strong a lot at Central,” Turner said. “I really feel like the tutoring program assists the idea that it’s never over. You may have started poorly or gotten behind here or there, but we’re going to help you and support you in catching up.”

Over the years, Turner has tracked student participation in the program and found that it has a deep influence on graduation rates. He said one year 20% of graduates who were on the line of eligibility were able to finish high school because of the extra support they received in tutoring.

The teachers leading the afterschool sessions also learn and benefit in their own way.

In a room full of students all needing assistance in different subjects, teachers oftentimes step in to help with courses they don’t teach. An algebra teacher might help with biology, or a literature teacher could assist with world geography. “It’s fun to watch teachers push themselves professionally and stay fresh on content,” Turner said. He added, “The hearts of these teachers are so big. Getting paid is nice, but they would do it for free. They really do care about the kids.”

Holston Middle Counselors Work to Support the Whole Child

Holston Middle Counselors Work to Support the Whole Child

When the Whole Child Support Team concept was introduced last year at Holston Middle, the counselors were ready to welcome the process with open arms. 

“Whole-child support means you’re looking at every piece of the child, so when a kid is struggling in math, for example, we dig deep into what else is going on in their life that might lead them to struggle in math,” said sixth-grade counselor Hannah Roberts.

In just over a year, Holston’s students have already seen significant improvements in behavior and academics.

Anjelica Nichols, the seventh-grade counselor, said at one point in time 35 seventh-graders were failing a class. In just two weeks of whole-child meetings and interventions, 70% of those students no longer had Fs. 

“If we hadn’t had everyone at the table with those different ideas or reached out to the students’ families, I don’t think we would have seen that much of a turnaround,” she said. “Everyone’s insight is needed to help the child be successful.”

When a teacher notices a change in a student, they are encouraged to refer them to the Whole-Child Support Team. Counselors then conduct a root-cause analysis and determine what additional supports are needed. 

Eighth-grade counselor Taylor Branson also emphasized the importance of echoing support at home.“Be as involved as possible, and do a ten-minute check-in with your kiddo every day,” she said. “If you have any questions about your student and want our perspective, reach out! We want to work together to build support around your kids.”

Teacher Spotlight: The Rookie and the Veteran at KCS

Teacher Spotlight: The Rookie and the Veteran at KCS

The Longest-Serving Teacher in Knox County Schools

The town of Farragut was mostly farmland when Eddie Courtney began working at the high school in 1976, and he has witnessed quite an evolution during his 47-year career as a teacher and coach. 

As a young person entering the profession, he was excited to serve the community in such an integral way. 

“Coaching and teaching is very respectable, especially when you’re trying to be an example and positive role model,” he said. “That’s why I got started and what’s kept me here for so long.”

In the near half-century Courtney has been teaching, he’s developed a firm set of beliefs that he applies inside the classroom and out – a standard for presenting yourself as a professional, regardful citizen.

This Code of Conduct is proudly displayed on the wall of his office and he says it’s not just for his athletes and students, but also for him and his coworkers. 

Time has granted Courtney the opportunity to meet hundreds of teachers – all at different points in their careers. His best advice on getting started is to “have a passion for helping kids.” To have a career as long as his, earn the trust and respect of your students. 

“Just be consistent. When things are going good or when they’re going bad, you have to continue to be the same person.” 

The Youngest Teacher in Knox County Schools

Googling “how to become a Tennessee teacher,” provides a pretty clear path: go to an accredited college, earn a bachelor’s degree, complete an approved educator prep program, and pass appropriate Praxis exams.

Knox County is committed to finding innovative ways to recruit new teachers, something that has benefitted Jayla Huddleston, who started her career just one year after becoming a legal adult. 

Huddleston has always been drawn to kids. After graduating high school early, she took time off to become a family nanny and a tutor at Gresham Middle

“After starting as a tutor, I knew I wanted a bigger role here, so I started school and finished faster than normal because I took some accelerated courses,” she said.

A Gresham alumni, she said it was easy to come back to her old school and community–it was familiar because some of her current coworkers were her teachers when she was at the school just a few years ago. 

“I’m leaning on the veteran teachers and learning a lot about the importance of building relationships with students,” Huddleston said. “The other math teacher I work with has a connection with almost every student she has and I’m learning that makes teaching easier. I know what I’m doing with math and instruction, but I’m learning how to build relationships like that with my own students.”

Still, she says her biggest learning curve has been reminding herself of her ‘why’ each day, especially the challenging ones. “In the end,” she says, “It’s all worth it because of what I get to do.”

‘Community coaches have value’ | Coaches Reflect on their Careers, Best Memories, and Teachable Moments

‘Community coaches have value’ | Coaches Reflect on their Careers, Best Memories, and Teachable Moments

For National Coaches Day, Hall Pass sat down with four Knox County coaches, all of whom are highly respected. For this piece, they dug through a lifetime of memories and shared advice for their students.

Note: Responses have been lightly edited for length or clarity.

Gwen Jackson, Girls Basketball Coach at Austin-East High School

How long have you been coaching, and what initially drew you to be a coach? 

I have been coaching since 2005. I tore my ACL and was pregnant with my daughter when I was released from the Phoenix Mercury. I wanted to do something different while I was rehabbing my knee and coaching was it. I started out coaching at my old high school in Eufaula, Alabama where my career began, and coached my baby cousin Terran Condrey. She went on to play at Baylor, and she played and won a National Championship there playing alongside Brittney Griner. Then I coached in the CIAA at Saint Paul’s College for three years as an assistant coach and one year as a head coach. Then I coached at Austin-East High School from 2012 to 2018. I took a small break and then had the opportunity to come back and coach last school year, and I am still here to date. Coaching is my passion, my calling. I love it to the fullest and thank God for the platform.

What is the best memory you have as a coach? 

My best memories as a coach are coaching my daughter and my son. Tennessee Knockout Elite is my and my husband’s AAU team and watching my daughter Janiya and my son Jaiden follow my legacy is such an honor and a blessing. Watching them be coached by their father is even bigger. They are truly something special.

What life lessons do you try to teach your student-athletes? 

I try to teach them about being a good person, a good student, and then a good athlete. Grades and character are highly important as an athlete. Athletes represent a brand, a name, an organization, or a school. Playing for a team is bigger than you. Then I focus on competing, giving it our all, and being accountable is important.

Eddie Courtney, Football Coach at Farragut High School

How long have you been coaching, and what initially drew you to be a coach? 

I’ve been coaching for over 45 years, and I’ve been here at Farragut for most of those years. It’s been a good place to work, teach, coach, and have kids come through here. It’s been a very positive thing for me all these years. That’s why I’ve stayed here. I’ve had some opportunities to go to other places this is where I was comfortable to coach the way I felt like I needed to coach. The community wants successful things going on around them, and they support you. It’s been a very positive thing for us.

What’s your favorite thing about Farragut?

We just try to be the best we can here. In this community, they want people to do well, they support you, and try to give you all the resources they can. I guess now I’ve been through five or six principals all these years, and they’ve all been people who’ve kept up this reputation and tradition we built here. We’ve had some really good principals here. I’ve seen a lot of kids come through here who wanted to go college, get a degree, be successful, and be a good athlete.

What life lessons do you try to teach your student-athletes? 

I teach all my kids a little bit about being an adult, decision-making, and being a strong person. You live with integrity. You stand on your own two feet, do the best you can to work hard for things. Things are not going to be given to you. When you have setbacks, you have to revert back to your training or the culture of your program because those are things that carry you through. If those are not solid things, then you’ll stay scattered and not know the direction you’re trying to go. Just be real, take advice, and be coachable. Communicate with your coaches and your teachers, and give them respect because they’re trying to help you. I also tell them to find a passion they really enjoy doing. The sooner you find out what it is you really want to do, the sooner you can apply yourself to be successful in doing it.

Carol Mitchell, Softball Coach at Gibbs High School

How long have you been coaching, and what initially drew you to be a coach? 

This is my 31st year of coaching. I initially had no intentions of being an educator or a coach. That was not something that was on my radar. I was a math major and I didn’t know what I was going to do with a math degree. I took some education classes and ended up getting certified to teach. It just so happened that I went to school here and there was a math position available. My old softball coach, who was still here coaching at the time, was like, “Come on, let’s go.” I helped him my very first year, and then the second year, he went to coach baseball, and I took over the softball job. It’s been interesting. It seems like it’s gone by really fast. 

What is the best memory you have as a coach? 

It’s really hard to narrow it down. The obvious choices would be the state championship teams. In a few of those state championships, we were kind of expected to win. 2017 was our most recent state championship and that one was special. We’d always been a AA school, but for four years we were bumped into AAA. I think I used it as motivation to be better because people knew we were good at AA, but they didn’t think that we would do very well in AAA. When we ended up winning the state, that kind of solidified that we could play at pretty much any level. That was a really proud moment.

What life lessons do you try to teach your student-athletes? 

It doesn’t really matter how talented you are, if you work hard to achieve something, you can achieve that goal. I’ve had situations where a kid is a sophomore and doesn’t get to start until their senior year, but they keep working and finally, they make it to starter. Or maybe they never make it to be a starter, but they are one of the leaders on the team because of their work ethic. You can outwork people at work and be a great employee. You can work hard and be a valuable person on a team, at your job, or in life.

Don Madgett, Track & Field and Cross-Country Coach at South-Doyle High School

How long have you been coaching, and what initially drew you to be a coach? 

This is my 27th year as head coach in both cross country and track. I think probably my high school experience led me to this life. Cross country has a lifestyle that goes with it. The team culture and being able to maintain that as a coach was something that was appealing to me.

When I started teaching, I knew from reading the paper that there had been some good runners here at South-Doyle. One of them, Anthony Norris, is the principal of South-Doyle Middle. He was an all-state runner-up, but he had run for Coach Prince, who was still here when I got here. He was a mentor of mine for a bit, but what I found was that this place had a rich history in this building. There have only been three coaches ever at South-Doyle since 1968. Melvin Maxwell was the first, and he coached for about 29 years. Then Prince was the coach for a bit, and then I have been the coach for the past 27 years.  

I’ve always held the ideal of the long-term teacher coach. Community coaches have value. Some coaches change schools. Some only stay in the profession for a little while, but I think the ideal for me has always been to stay in one place. Once I found my place, I would want to stay forever if I could. As for why I’ve stayed here, as one of our assistant principals said, “At this school, running was sacred.” It was the highest compliment I’ve been paid in my coaching career.

What is the best memory you have as a coach? 

Successes are always nice. In my first year, we qualified for state, and we had the region meet down along the river in Sequoyah Hills. There was a little dock going out into the river and the team ran and jumped off it for their celebration afterward. That was the fall of 1997, my first year as head coach.

What life lessons do you try to teach your student-athletes? 

Cross country is the sport where you can find that you can do things personally you never thought you could do, and that’s something that you can take into other realms in the larger life and bigger world.

This sport is one where you can come to high school without all the skill sets you might need in other sports, but if you’re willing to work at it, be patient, and put some time in, you can be successful in high school and have a great career.