Woman to Watch: Elizabeth MacWilliams

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Have you ever been to the point in your career when you consider a change? Teachers probably feel that way twice a week at least. There are several reasons why. Some say teachers stay if the administration is supportive. Some say teachers stay because of the coworkers. It’s definitely not for the pay. We knew coming into the profession we weren’t going to get rich.
For many us, it’s the relationships. If we have someone we can turn to and express how we are feeling and not be judged. One day we are overwhelmed. The next day we are excited and want to spread joy. Everyday we want to share. We also want to be challenged but in the most complimentary way.

For example, if an administrator approaches a teacher and says, “You are perfect for this. The next step in your career should be this and I believe you can do it.’ We would likely jump at it. Imagine the same conversation but instead you hear “Do this by the end of next month.”  Different response all together. Of course.

Imagine an educator who after 20 years, has hit that point.  Ready to turn her classroom lights off and never turn them back on. She is tired, unmotivated, and broke. Although she says she loved her students and job, she’s on empty. This teacher doesn’t feel like she’s making a difference anymore. She doesn’t know what she’s going to do next in her life but she knows she’s done in the classroom.

Now, meet Principal Elizabeth MacWilliams of Wake County’s Carroll Leadership in Technology Magnet School. Her name sounds familiar, right? She is the very same Elizabeth MacWilliams that has been featured nationally on NBC News Nightly, the Today Show, and from here to California. “A Hero Among US” is what they People Magazine called her. Principal MacWilliams is known for her incredible support of the students at her school. For the past three years she has visited EVERY student’s home to welcome them to a brand new school year. EVERY student! She has over 900 students at her school.

I remember reading her story and thinking, wow. Now that’s an educational leader.
Why would a principal take the time out of her schedule to do that? She’s up before the sun, has a family of her own, and is the supervisor of over 60 staff members at her school. Not to mention the meetings, and every day responsibilities of a building principal is time consuming. In her own words, she did these visits initially as a teacher because she wanted to make sure the students knew she loved them. She wanted the families to know how much she valued them.

Fast forward years later, she still carries that same philosophy.

She continues to visit the homes of her middle school students. The school has half of its population on free and reduced lunch. She continues to use this as a way to connect with families and build a strong relationship that is all about the student and providing the necessary support for them to get the best education possible.

Strengthening both aspects of this vital relationship has only been through one simple solution. Changing the growth mindset to not just learning but also respect of others….it’s become second nature.

#otherpeoplematter is a common saying you’ll hear at Carroll. It’s about building relationships. Relationships is why this school is the front runner of changing the face of public education. It’s about being at a place where students and faculty feel valued and wanted. In the latest teacher working survey over 80% of the staff feel like Carroll is a great school to work out. Those of us in the education field know that is almost unheard of in recent times.

When I asked her staff to describe her, I heard words like inspirational, encouraging, unconditional, compassionate, innovator, game changer, tenacious, visionary, energetic, vibrant, positive, risk taker, courageous, forward thinker, pioneer, trailblazer, groundbreaker, and infectious leader.

Sixth grade assistant principal Brenden Fetters says, “Principal MacWilliams gets the best out of every employee, including me, on a daily basis.  She encourages me to do better through constant motivation and to become a better educator through her leadership. I look forward to expanding my horizons under her guidance”.

Lydia B, eighth grader says, “The kids at this school really care for one another. It doesn’t matter what they look like or where they come from. I’ve never seen that before. I’ve never had a principal like her before either. At first I was confused, but I like it. And I really like her a lot.”

“Mrs. MacWilliams leads with such tenacity that the students have no choice but to grow academically and socially. Elizabeth believes in every student and staff member at Carroll. Because of this it makes it that much easier to be resilient. None of us, to include students, are afraid of failing forward.” says Patricia Geter, 7th grade Writing teacher.

“When anyone comes through the doors of Carroll I want them to have seen a family that supports every diverse member, our students, our staff, our families. I want to ensure that this is a personal experience. We are making decisions that allow for every need to be addressed; academics, social and emotional. Our end game is student achievement. We want to make sure that everyone has opportunities. The idea that relationships matter. That other people do matter.

You can walk into Carroll at any moment and you will likely catch her teaching a math class, participating in PE classes, eating lunch with some students, or talking to a staff member about a recent activity posted on her Twitter account. She does that. She builds relationships. She walks the walk! She stays after school with students who are waiting for rides home and has a rap battle. And wins! You can’t make this stuff up. Just ask the parents.

Mrs. Mary Jane Swecker has nothing but wonderful things to say about her son’s principal. “As a parent, I could not be happier about the educational transformation happening at Carroll. My son is actively learning and engaged in his school work. Mrs. MacWilliams is making school fun while dialing up the challenge and the academic rigor. Our students are no longer passive receivers of information. They are active seekers and explorers soaking in knowledge while having a good time. All while collaborating and learning the importance of blending different character strengths. What Mrs. MacWilliams is building is a model of education in the 21st century. I believe the results will be amazing and I’m so thrilled to be a part of it.”

So many times throughout my own career, I’ve heard those in education say we can’t teach kids how to be nice. “Students are so mean today”. “Teachers are losing their touch and just come to do a job nowadays.” That is not what you see at Carroll. You see love. You see compassion. You see growth. You see other people caring about other people.
How do I know? Remember the 20 year  teacher I mentioned at the beginning of this piece? Well, I am that teacher. I am the teacher who was ready to walk away. I was ready to say goodbye to a career that meant the world to me. Then I met Elizabeth MacWilliams. And now I’m excited and inspired by her everyday!




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