There was always an appeal to just think about how we as human beings experience language and the power that’s in that.
On his early morning commute along the quiet streets of Roxhill to the John Stanford Center for Educational Excellence, Thad Williams (PhD ’18), a native of Tennessee, passes by several neighborhoods that capture the diversity which drew him to Seattle.
In a school district where there are presently 147 languages and dialects spoken, he holds a critical role in empowering the city’s linguistically diverse students.
Early in his own schooling, Williams — who joined Seattle Public Schools as its international education administrator last August — came to appreciate school as a “transformative space.” Although public education has played a role in producing inequities, he said, “I think that there are a lot of opportunities within education to undo those or change the systems that are in place that aren’t necessarily benefitting all of our students.”
Throughout his career, Williams has focused on establishing language as a source of strength for marginalized students, particularly emergent bilingual students, English learners and students of color.
“I think for me there was always an appeal to just think about how we as human beings experience language and the power that’s in that and how students in particular who are growing up in the United States or arriving in the United States from another country really experience our K through 12 educational system,” said Williams, who earned his master’s degree and PhD in language, literacy and culture at the University of Washington College of Education.
“It was really clear to me that this track [at the UW] centered language and also centered race,” he said. “I needed and wanted a program that was very clear and upfront and loud about that area of focus.”
At the UW, Williams said, “you weren’t just learning about ‘here are the best language strategies’ or ‘here are the best approaches,’ but it was about, ‘how do you understand your positionality and power as an educator?’ So, to turn that back on me.”
During his graduate studies, Williams enriched his learning through teaching Spanish and ELL at Kentridge High School in Kent for over four years. His work later gravitated toward professional and curriculum development for multilingual education, bringing him to the Bellevue School District as an instructional coach for seven years.
“I think part of it was some instrumental mentors in my life that were encouraging me to think about [the] level of impact that you can have. Sure, on students and families, but also on our educators and groups of teachers and systems that we have in place,” Williams said.
“When you’re working with a team of teachers or an individual teacher, and they put something into action and really can speak about it and feel like they can name the difference that made for a student, I think that becomes really valuable and important. From a coaching and mentor perspective, that drives you to keep doing that work,” he added.
In his role as international education administrator at Seattle Public Schools, Williams continues to collaborate closely with teachers, as well as teacher leaders, to advance the district’s international education program, which includes its dual language and world language programs and its ten international schools.
His goal is to ensure that students have learning experiences that value their home language and identity — assets they bring to the classroom, he said, which are often “undervalued and overlooked.”
“I think in some areas that’s happening, and in other areas, that’s not what seems to be reflected in how some of our communities feel,” Williams noted.
Part of his work centers on implementing dual language as a gap-closing measure. “When we think of dual language as a gap-closing measure, it’s that dual language is about empowering the students who show up at our school and speak a language other than English,” Williams said, “and dual language is now a program where they can immediately have success because their language is valued and who they are as a student is valued from the beginning.”
Williams strives to support bilingual students within Seattle’s dual-language program, drawing from the three pillars of dual-language education established by the Center for Applied Linguistics, where he worked as a professional development facilitator. His plans for the program are to 1) ensure it develops bilingualism and biliteracy, 2) provide rigorous, grade-level instruction that leads to academic achievement in both languages and 3) deepen sociocultural competence or critical consciousness in learning spaces.
“I think that, in the United States, school districts K through 12 often view language as a problem,” Williams said, particularly if students are new to English or are still learning the language. However, “it’s not a helpful or the right way to think about language and so it’s a passion of mine to really change mindsets around how we think about language,” he said.
This includes “thinking about language as power, thinking about language as a right, thinking about language as a resource for students and for people in our community, and … as a tool for empowerment and engaging and sharing something that is really meaningful and true and close to an individual’s identity and heart.”
Story by Tracy Dinh, marketing and communications student aide.
Dustin Wunderlich, Director of Marketing and Communications