Ernest “Jameel” Williams returned to L.B. Yancey Elementary School in September not only as a school bus driver, teacher assistant and mentor, but also as the 2011 National Education Association Education Support Professional of the Year. Although Williams received the NEA award in March, he said still can’t believe it.
“All I can say is ‘wow,’” said Williams, who started his 24th year working at the Henderson, N.C., elementary school, and expressed the same enthusiasm he had his first year. At the start of the new school year, the district honored Williams at a meeting and presented him with a plaque.
“The faculty — everybody — is pleased with the job he is doing,” said Clarence Hicks, principal of L.B. Yancey. “He has a great rapport with the students. They love him to death.”
Williams emphasized that he enjoys interacting with students every day, whether on the school bus or when tutoring them in math and reading. “I feel like I stepped into the fountain of youth. The kids keep me young and going,” he said.
Additionally, Williams has been active serving his local and state associations. He is the first noncertified local unit president to advocate for ESPs to become certified teachers, has served as the North Carolina ESP president and sits on several state and national boards of directors.
That passion and enthusiasm are the reasons why Williams was named ESP of the Year. In March, Williams spoke in front of nearly 9,000 fellow educators at the NEA’s Representative Assembly in July about the critical role that ESPs, also known as school support staff, play in the lives of the country’s 49 million public school students. ESPs make up 43 percent of the public school workforce, according to the NEA.
As part of his ESP of the Year award, Williams received a $10,000 grant from the Gardner Rich Foundation of Chicago. Foundation owner Chris Gardner, who was the inspiration for the 2006 movie “The Pursuit of Happyness” and keynote speaker at the 2011 STN Expo, serves on the board of the National Education Foundation and sponsors the ESP Award.
Recognizing ESPs is important to Gardner, who remembers the time he spent as a child with school support staff such as cafeteria workers, janitors and bus drivers more than with his teachers. “I connected more with them, and a lot of young people do because…while the school teachers are always talking to you and telling you stuff, that bus driver was listening to you,” he said.
Listening to kids and keeping them interested in school is what Williams does on a daily basis. In fact, he plans to donate half of his $10,000 grant to the Celebrity of the Year Scholarship to help young people continue their education at a college or university of their choice.
“I am so grateful that the NEA chose me, and I feel very honored,” Williams said. “But I don’t do what I do to be honored — I just do it.”