Goodbye, Professor Leslie R. Williams

Every so often, I receive an alumni newsletter from Columbia University Teachers College where I completed my doctorate. This month brought sad news: my department chair, dissertation advisor, mentor and friend — Dr. Leslie R. Williams — had died at the age of 63 from colon cancer. Leslie was a remarkable woman; one who changed the course of my own life and many others as well. She saw potential, had the highest expectations and demanded rigor. Her will to provide the highest standards for every child was unshakable.

Leslie was devoted to advancing the importance of early childhood education in general and specifically multicultural education. The author of 15 books, many articles, even an encyclopedia, this woman was a tireless advocate for children. Her influence extended well beyond these United States, especially with educators dedicated to establishing early childhood programs, including those for indigenous peoples. Coming from a large family of limited means, she financed her own education through scholarships and jobs. Dyslexic at a time when the term was primarily equated with a lack of intelligence provided an extra struggle.

Defying these odds, she was accepted at St. Paul’s for advanced studies after high school followed by an undergraduate degree at Wellesley, master’s at Harvard and education doctorate at the Teachers College. An amazing education, indeed, and having achieved this pinnacle, she wholeheartedly believed others could as well. Leslie recognized every student deserved to be taught with the highest standards, and it was the job of the teacher to find out what strategies best-suited individual children.

My first choice for graduate school was the Bank Street College of Education with its outstanding programs and long history of excellence. Having earned honors in California with all the requisite experience and recommendations, I felt fairly confident I would be accepted. Well, that was not the case, evidenced when the thin envelope arrived at my apartment. Needless to say, I was devastated.

Several weeks later, I received a call from graduate admissions at Bank Street. They were re-evaluating my application to see if a mistake was made in rejecting me. I inquired as to why I had been denied in the first place. ”From what we ascertain, you have been responsible for yourself since childhood. We do not know how you will be with a mentor or if you can work under someone successfully,” was the reply.

I assured her I had had no difficulties working under people, especially when given respect. The committee again reviewed my application, but I was again rejected, much to the expressed sorrow of the woman who called me. Further demoralized, I was at a crossroads. In retrospect, the Bank Street rejection opened the door to another and more personally appropriate situation.

Depressed about my future after having worked so hard throughout my schooling as an adult learner, I was close to giving up. A friend suggested going up to Columbia. I was doubtful: how in the world would the most prestigious education school in the country even look at my application after the debacle at Bank Street?

Nevertheless, I made an appointment where I first encountered Professor Leslie R. Williams, who then was fairly new to the department of curriculum and teaching. She was a formidable yet friendly presence, and her eyes spelled welcome.

She took me into her office, and we spoke for quite a while. I told her about my background, the tutoring program I started in San Francisco and my goals for children. She shared her story of being dyslexic and working her way through Wellesley, Harvard and then Columbia University Teachers College. At the end of the interview, she encouraged me to apply into the doctoral program rather then for a master’s degree. Leslie told me that from our interview she believed I could make a unique contribution to the lives of children. That short visit changed the course of my life. I did complete the application and was one of the few students admitted to the doctoral program in curriculum and teaching that year.

This acceptance has led me to believe in the miraculous with my own students, knowing that, without exploration and even risk, you may never find that right school and the educators best suited to develop your particular talents. Leslie’s classes were difficult with voluminous materials to be mastered. She was distressed at educational trends that fostered so-called “dumbing down” or oversimplification of curriculum. Rather then a degradation of intellectual standards, she taught us the converse: to prepare each and every student with the optimal education.

Having Leslie R. Williams as a mentor left an indelible impression on my philosophy of education as well as my heart. It is her influence that makes me disheartened when potential teachers in my foundations classes reveal their most admired teacher was like a friend or used the word “crap” in class. Such teachers make it more difficult for those with higher more professional standards on the part of instructors. Used to being spoon-fed diluted materials, students squirm and kvetch when higher standards are expected.

Several high school students recently complained to me about an English teacher who requested they call her Mrs. instead of by her first name. They were also frustrated that diagramming sentences was a requirement and essays had to follow the professional MLA format. Used to informality and the latitude of having been taught by “pal” teachers, this more rigorous instructor received a plethora of negative comments on the student-driven Web site — Rate My Teacher.

Those instructors that dumb down the material often receive four stars, and the ultimate criteria for approval is the easy A for the course. How sad this lax and demeaning attitude is! Instead of dumbing down the curriculum, why not try ratcheting it up? Yes, ratcheting up the curriculum is exactly what my highly rated professor would have agreed to. Well before No Child Left Behind, this was her philosophy. Sounds old-fashioned, I know, yet I believe Dr. Leslie R. Williams would concur that by raising educational standards, we raise potential and each student’s ability to achieve.