Aletha Williams is no stranger to science. The daughter of an African-American chemist at a major chemical company, she knew early the heights women of color were capable of reaching in the scientific field.
“My mom couldn’t wait to go to work every day and she taught me that your work should leave you smiling,” says Aletha.
But even with a mother who ran her own lab, Aletha’s teachers withheld confidence in her STEM abilities, at one point telling her that “at best, she could hope to be a lab tech.”
Bucking their advice, Aletha successfully followed her mother into chemistry, moving back to her hometown to work for the same company.
After a few years in the lab, Aletha transitioned to teaching as she reflected on her own experiences as a student of color.
“When I was in school, you didn’t see kids or women of color who loved science. I wanted these students to come into my classroom and say, ‘Oh my gosh! Not only does my teacher love science, she’s crazy about it!”
A 15-year veteran teacher now at Mayde Creek High School in the Katy Independent School District outside of Houston, Aletha leads the high school chemistry program for a student body of nearly 3,000 students.
Part of teaching science in a community as diverse as Texas means making sure that each student understands the material and feels confident in its use.
As a TED-ED innovative educator, Aletha has developed lessons to help her fellow teachers adapt project-based learning for ELL students despite socioeconomic background or initial language barriers. Aletha says, “Everybody can be a leader, everybody has a role.”
Teaching high school students, many of them from low-income backgrounds, has been particularly rewarding.
“A lot of my students, their parents may not have been home all night, they might have kids of their own, but they work hard in my class. They know I have high expectations, and they rise to those expectations.”
This requires a commitment to relationship-building, says Aletha, who attends their games, comments on new haircuts and clothes and asks them how their weekends went before any learning happens.
“A student one time blurted out, ‘Mama!’ to me, and I like to think I have a whole bunch of kids. When you build these deep connections, it’s easy to get them to work in the classroom.”
In what little free time she has, Aletha is also working on her Ph.D. in Curriculum & Instruction for STEM Education from Texas Tech University and has launched two educational companies, EasyStreet and Young & Ready Youth.
EasyStreet incorporates more project-based learning into STEM curriculum, helping science teachers find ways to incorporate topics and issues students find most engaging into lessons.
She created Young & Ready Youth for low-income and at-risk students, helping them think beyond academics to develop skills for the real world—whether that be managing debt or focusing on ways to improve their communities.
So far, Aletha has brought in architects, local business leaders and others to speak to the group and spark both inspiration and readiness for what lies ahead.
She has also become an advocate for her fellow teachers and smarter education policy as senior fellow with Teach Plus, a Walton Family Foundation grantee.
Aletha has testified before the Texas State House and Senate on mentoring and student funding, and the organization is also pushing her to elevate her voice on a national scale.
“I’ve had great mentors and been a mentor myself. But I’ve also seen the other side, sharing with legislators how another teacher and I had 37 students in one classroom, how we had to share stools just so they could sit and learn.”
Teach Plus, Aletha says, “allows me to be a voice for the voiceless, to speak on behalf of my students, parents and teachers that can’t tell these stories.”