Woodward Academy teacher William Terry aims to improve students’ attitudes about education. The longtime Illinois police dispatcher returned to school and received a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from Iowa State. Photos by Blake Lanser.

Terry teaches students the value of education

William Terry commands both respect and understanding as he stands in front of a classroom of young men who have run into trouble in school, with their families, or with the law.

“I can relate because I was where you are,” he said of his students. “I see myself in a lot of my students’ eyes. If I can impart some nuggets of wisdom, if I can plant the seed — I think that’s great.”

Terry is an Iowa State University alumnus who’s a lead teacher, U.S. government teacher, and special education teacher at Woodward Academy, a residential treatment facility and school for adjudicated males ages 12 to 18 from all over the country.

Today, he is making a difference in young men’s lives, serving as a positive role model at a school with a large number of black and Hispanic students. He especially aims to improve students’ attitudes about education.

“I want to make sure that students, specifically black students, can see a positive black role model to help foster their attitude towards education and what education can do for you,” he said.

“Especially here specifically, just that second chance — to come here and know, yes I can be successful,” he said. “I can contribute to my learning. I can be a better student. That’s what I really try to push toward them so when they leave here, they have a better attitude toward school, education, and lifelong learning.”

An ability to relate to students

The stakes are especially high for students at Woodward Academy, which aims to redirect delinquent, negative behaviors to positive, socially acceptable patterns.

William-Terry-contentStudents both live and go to school there. They take part in a highly structured program where there’s an expectation to be kind and friendly, to work out any problems, and to be mature. It’s a highly transient setting with new students coming and going all the time.

“It’s a school but it’s a unique setting with our students being residential and all male,” said Jeremy Hilbert, the principal of Woodward Academy who’s also an alumnus of Iowa State. “I’ve always taken the stance that these kids need us in an absolute sense. They need us as educators, as role models, as staff.”

Terry has a special ability to relate to his students. They like how he incorporates hip hop into his lessons. His colleagues like how he’s flexible, creative, and open to new ideas.

“When William was interviewing for this lead teacher position, he stood out from the other candidates because of his ability to convey to me how he was relating to his students in the classroom,” Hilbert said. “He has the same effect on his colleagues. He really understands our students.”

A call to work with children

Being a teacher wasn’t Terry’s first career choice. He worked for 11 years as a dispatcher for the Illinois State Police. Prior to that, he served in the U.S. Army and worked in communications.

But the desire to work with children called to him. As a longtime coach, he worked with kids coaching little league baseball, little league football, and high school baseball.

So he returned to school and received a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from the Iowa State University School of Education in 2012. His training included student teaching in Indonesia.

“I felt like I was called to teach,” he said. “I coached in my background; I worked with children a lot. My wife would always tell me, ‘You’d probably make a pretty good teacher.’ So I kind of took the long route to this profession and I’m happy I did make that decision.”

Terry showed leadership in education and diversity while a student at Iowa State. He was the founding president of ISU Leaders in Education and Diversity, the first undergraduate group that provided professional development for students of color wanting to become teachers.

“We noticed the lack of various ethnic and racial groups applying or graduating,” he said. “Out of my class, I was the only male black that graduated with an elementary education degree. We just wanted to make those opportunities present for diverse population students.”

To Terry, every student is important. He recognizes each of them with a greeting each morning, just like they do in Indonesia.

“Every student who comes in my room, I’ll always greet them whether it’s a ‘good morning’ or ‘Selamat pagi,’ which is good morning in Indonesian,” Terry said. “Just something just to say, ‘I see you. I look at your face. We’re in this together. And they know that.”