Meet The Leader of the Pack: Janis Williams

The halls are bustling with activity and the chatter of old friends reuniting and new friendships beginning to form fill the air. The first day of school is like the nervous excitement before a rollercoaster, and whether you are a new junior or a returning senior, the prospect of the school year ahead is exhilarating and terrifying at the same time. However, the feelings of experiencing different environments do not belong to students only, as new Principal Janis Williams begins to explore and meet the home of the Wolfpack and its members.

“This is a huge honor,” Williams said, “having known so much about this school and then be given the opportunity to lead the Wolfpack is incredible.”

While this is Williams’ first year as the principal of Plano West, her former experience in administration and education is plentiful.

“This is my 30th year in education,” Williams said. “For the first 16 years I was an English teacher and then this is my 13th year at administration. I started 13 years ago in Vines High School as administrative intern for one year, and then I was the curriculum and instruction principal curricular assistant principal for three years. After that, I went to Clark High School for eight years as the campus principal.”

Before Williams was a principal, she taught English at Jasper High School, one of the two high schools that feed into West. While unbeknownst to Williams at the time, some of her colleagues at Jasper High School like English teacher Cynthia Mitchell and American Studies teacher Kristin Taylor would soon become teachers working under her administration.

“I met Mrs. Williams at Jasper High School,” Mitchell said. “We were hired the same year, and we were classroom neighbors. When I found out that Mrs. Williams was going to be our principal, I thought, ‘what a perfect fit and what a perfect transition’.”

The transition stems from past principal, Kathy King. King had been principal for 12  years, and so much of the legacy and traditions of Plano West have been influenced by her.

“As soon as I heard the principal would be Mrs. Williams, I was really excited,” Taylor said. “She is really student-oriented, which I love because that is so how American Studies (AMSTUD) is. I am excited for someone to continue Mrs. King’s tradition of being really hands on.”

While students recognize Williams as their principal, administration was not always the route Williams envisioned for her future.

Malvika Mahendhra
Williams taking an administrative phone call.

“I found that the longer I was a teacher, the more I was getting involved in the school beyond my own classroom and my own advocacy for students,” Williams said. “It was actually the principal of Jasper at the time who approached me and began talking to me about considering administration. In the beginning, it was something I could not imagine because I loved being a teacher, but his point to me was that you’re reaching out to more and more students, so this would be an opportunity for you to have a different impact on a larger scale.”

As she transitioned into administration, she began to pursue the role of providing emotional and academic support.

“Jasper staff moved Mrs. Williams into a support role for working with at-risk students,” Mitchell said. “She had such a passion for working with at-risk kids and her organization really transformed the program at Jasper.”

Williams’ time and experience working with “at-risk” students shaped her beliefs and thoughts on developing methods that addresses the emotional needs of students.

“I have always believed that it is important for educators to not only focus on the curriculum, but to look at the child as a whole,” Williams said. “We should pay attention to the social and emotional well-being of a child and I believe we do through individual relationships with each student and finding out what their needs are.”

Williams’ values on education of students has influenced her approach on professional development for teachers.

“This year at West we started programs on emotional learning,” Mitchell said. “I think this expresses Mrs. Williams intentionality to see students as a whole and to acknowledge their emotional makeup. Prior to students’ return to school, the staff was trained to bring that into class by doing circle time and getting students to take more time to think and to breathe a little more.”

The emotional insight Williams incorporated within her teaching and administration had a profound impact on Jasper leading to a memorable moment in her career. She was named Plano ISD’s secondary teacher of the year in 2004.

“It was a huge honor to be selected by the teachers at Jasper High School, but then to represent all of Plano ISD as secondary teacher of the year is an experience that I’ll never forget,” Williams said. “Not only were my family and colleagues there, but so was the woman I student taught with all of those years ago. I had invited her to come to the dinner simply because the dinner was to recognize each campus teacher of the year but I had no idea that I would be selected. To have her there was really cool because she played such an instrumental role in mentoring me.”

Becoming the Plano ISD secondary teacher of the year is due to a multitude of qualities Williams possesses, not only as a teacher and principal, but as a person.

“What I always noticed about Mrs. Williams is that she cared deeply about her students,” Mitchell said. “Students loved her and I think it was because of her vulnerability because she was willing to share herself and that resulted in a love and loyalty from her students.”

However, beyond her abilities to be vulnerable and to empathize with students, Williams’ relaxed exterior lends her to be a strong principal for a senior high school.

“One of the biggest things that stands out with Mrs. Williams is that she is very thoughtful,” Taylor said. “When a situation arises, she is very calm which is great in a senior high environment because things can get crazy. She is able to maintain a very calm and peaceful demeanor and really processes things carefully before taking action.”

Besides making it a point to connect with students, Williams also focuses on establishing a connection with her staff of teachers and considers herself to be a teacher before she is a principal.

“One of the things that is really cool about Mrs. Williams is that in the summer we do professional development before school starts,” Taylor said. “So we have to go to meetings and Mrs. Williams actually came to the meetings with us. She mentioned several times that is something she has always made a point to do as a principal, so that she knows what people are experiencing. It has been really neat to see the principal of the school so present in all the things that we are doing.”

Getting to know her staff and school is important to Williams, so before school started she met up with all the different department chairs and has even begun to memorize the names of more than 200 teachers that work at West.

“Here, there are approximately 250 staff members, so it is really important I get to know each staff member,” Williams said. “But from one meeting, it’s difficult to remember names. Officer Parker, our police officer at Clark High School, has been taking the yearbook for years and cutting it up to memorize the students’ names. So, I thought if Officer Parker can memorize 1,500 students names, then I can surely memorize 250 to start. So I asked the office manager if she would make a copy of the staff yearbook and make flashcards for me by department. I’ve been studying them, that way I’ll see a face and I’ll remember ‘this teacher teaches whatever and they’re in this department.”

Dani Appel
Williams speaks at the first pep rally of the year.

Despite winning Plano ISD secondary teacher of the year or becoming principal at two high schools, Williams’ favorite moments from her career are much more simplistic.

“Memorable moments I have made in my career are the individual relationships I made with students and staying in touch with them over the years,” Williams said. “Watching them grow up and go out into the world to accomplish great things and continue to stay in touch with me has been amazing.”

To Williams, being an educator is more than a job. It is an opportunity to impact others and become inspired with each passing day.

“This is my life passion,” Williams said. “Teenagers’ openminded thinking, along with their desire to learn and impact change, inspires me. Every encounter I have with a student teaches me something.”