The last chalkboard at West Elementary will soon leave just like the teacher who wrote on it for the past 35 years.
Collette Williams was one of those few teachers who taught the same grade in the same classroom at the same school her entire career.
She used a chalkboard the whole time, too.
Yes, technology came. There’s a smart board projector for displaying technology, such as internet web pages, on a cart in the front of the room, but it just remained on the sidelines as Williams had no permanent white board to display it on. To use the smart board, Williams said she had to pull the video screen down over her chalkboard.
“I am the teacher,” she said pointing to the cart. “Not that.”
When her fourth grade students came upon subjects in which technology was beneficial, as a class they would turn to the computer and Google words like “pink dolphin” and “kangaroo rat,” Williams said. But technology had its place. As the teacher, she wanted to make sure the students were engaged and interacting at school.
Williams came from a family of teachers. Her mother, the daughter of an educator, taught Home Economics at Tooele Junior High School and Tooele High School. Her father taught everything from grade school gym to health to drivers education. He also served 20 years as assistant principal at THS.
It only made sense that when Collette Williams was six years old and her brother was four, she grabbed a chalkboard and began to instruct him.
“He went to [kindergarten] knowing how to tell time,” she said.
School was mostly a breeze for Williams. Her senior year, she had one period where she helped in a Central School classroom. She knew what she wanted to be at a young age. However, her first college degree was not in elementary education. She, like her mother, studied Home Economics.
“I needed one more year to get my Elementary Ed. degree,” she said, “And then I began looking for a job.”
In the meantime, along with her love for teaching, Williams developed a love for music. She began piano lessons at eight years old and continued for six years.
“Music was a fun thing for me, but the flats and sharps kill me,” Williams said. She referred to the music key signature as a jumble of “tic-tac-toes.”
Despite her love of music, Williams said she never took a music class in high school, “not chorus, not [band].”
Except for science, when she was 24, Williams had never really experienced trouble learning — until she accepted a call to serve as a missionary for her church in Honduras and had to learn Spanish. She had sailed through the language test when she sent in her application for her mission.
“But, I really struggled with the language,” Williams said. “I could not learn it. I could not memorize it. Everyone else was going like gangbusters — but it wouldn’t come.
“I left the Missionary Training Center [for Honduras] with 10-percent retention,” she said. “I knew nothing but ‘hello,’ ‘goodbye’ and the name of my mission. I couldn’t teach and I was a teacher.”
She added, “The thing I learned [was] what it feels like to not be able to learn something. I needed to learn it. It was crucial.” Within a year, however, the language did come more easily for her.
Williams came home, became a teacher and applied the lesson she learned from her mission: That each student has their own unique learning style and time frame for learning.
With a piano in her classroom, Williams was ready to teach the regular subjects and also share her love of music. Her first year, the school’s choir teacher asked her to accompany the students.
“She retired and then I decided I wanted to keep doing it,” Williams said. By default, she began to lead the school choir.
As the choir teacher, Williams instructed the fourth to sixth graders three mornings per week. For 10 years the choir was invited and performed at Salt Lake City’s Abravanel Hall.
“I remember having as many as 100 kids fourth through sixth grade,” she said. “But last year, we had 40 really good singers.”
Another coincidence pulled her even more into Tooele County School District’s music scene. One year Tooele Junior High School’s music teacher, who was helping with a Tooele High School production, suddenly passed away. The high school music director asked Williams to step in and play the piano. Many of the students in the production had been her fourth grade students, and she found she still connected with them.
From there, Williams became the pianist for many high school and local choirs, as well as school and local theatre productions.
One of Williams’ favorite classroom memories is helping students learn to sing, “We Go Together” from the musical “Grease” each year.
“I copied the words onto a piece of paper for the kids to sing,” she said. “My old piano had a mirror above it, so I could watch them do the ‘Shoo-bop, sha wadda, wadda’ as I played.”
When asked what her favorite student memory is, Williams recounted the class play her students had practiced to perform for parents. Among her students was a young boy who she said was a bit of a class clown. The boy struggled with reading, but she had given him a short part.
The day of the performance came and one of the leads was sick. Williams told the students this and asked who knew all of the missing student’s lines and could fill in.
Her struggling student said, “I can do it, Ms. Williams.”
“No you can’t,” she replied. “Prove it to me.”
But he did know all of the lines, she said.
“All of the sudden, I realized he was listening,” she said. “He learns this way.”
She remembered her own struggle learning Spanish and it clicked in her that auditory was his way to learn.
Years later, “I was standing [in] the hall and a Marine was coming up the walkway,” she said. “He took his hat off and said ‘Ms. Williams, it’s Justin … Now I’m a Marine. I’m getting married. I’m happy. Can I see the [class]room?”
“I still learn by listening,” she recounted his words. He hugged her when they said goodbye.
Williams has been emptying her classroom and preparing to end a long teaching career, but she hasn’t locked the door for the last time.
“I haven’t turned in my keys yet, and I still have my iPad, but other than that, the room is bare,” she said.
Perhaps today, Williams will turn in her keys after looking one last time at a classroom that holds nearly four decades of fond memories. But, this teacher isn’t done; Williams wants to learn more as she travels the world and volunteer at the local hospital and as a docent at This is the Place Monument in Salt Lake City.
Whatever she does, Williams said, “I will start my day with music and it will be cheery, with lots of music.”