Years ago a teacher once told Joseph Williams, “If you treat each student as your child, it will work out fine.”
Williams, who’s spent his entire 33-year career at Lockport Township High School and will retire at the end of the school year, has tried to give each student that personalized attention.
Ironically, Williams said he’d never heard of Lockport when he applied for the job. And it’s all because of a wrestling coach at Southwest Missouri State University.
A wrestler since the fifth grade, Williams was studying education – with a biology emphasis because Williams likes science – where the coach was friends with the wrestling coach at Lockport, Williams said.
The friend at Lockport had let Williams’ coach know that Lockport was looking for a wrestling coach. The coach approached Williams and said, “You should give it a try.”
So Williams applied and then worked as a building painter while waiting to hear back. But he did – and he went, serving as head wrestling coach for 21 years, he said.
In fact, Williams studied education because he wanted to stay in wrestling, he said. Growing up, he wrestled at Newman Central Catholic High School in Sterling and Althoff Catholic High School in Belleville. He then wrestled at Lincoln College and then Triton College in River Grove before wrestling at Southwest Missouri.
Williams felt wrestling suited his personality.
“I have my own style and it’s an individual sport that also lends itself to the team aspect of it,” Williams said.
But whether teaching or coaching, Williams’ relationships with his students were the best part of the job. As a coach, Williams said he enjoyed helping the wrestlers reach their individual goals and to do well as a team, too.
“A wrestling match is six minutes,” Williams said. “There’s studies out there that say it’s the most grueling six minutes … you have to be in pretty top shape.”
Williams said maintaining weight is physically and mentally challenging for wrestlers.
“You have to have a certain mental capacity to push through that,” Williams said.
Williams said his philosophy was “have fun through the hard work.”
“We tried not to take ourselves too seriously,” Williams said. “But we had our goals and we’d be serious enough to reach those goals. Then we also tried to instill the academic part, about being good people as well.”
In the classroom, Williams understood that many students didn’t love science. Yet he also didn’t want them to dislike science.
“I tried to have more of a relaxed atmosphere in my classroom,” Williams said. “But they were also expected to do their work.”
Although computers offer good educational programs, Williams feels textbooks helps students learn “how to read and analyze print,” he said.
“I think it helps the brain develop a little bit better,” Williams said.
One of the most rewarding aspects of teaching and coaching at LTHS is the actual family involvement. His wife, Laura, works at LTHS. His son wrestled at Lockport, and both of Williams’ daughters also attended school at Lockport and served as statisticians for the wrestling program.
“One of the most rewarding things was getting to drive to work with my wife every day,” Williams said.
As Williams prepares to retire to become a “home manager” – a role Laura held for many years – Williams leaves some advice for the incoming teachers: commit to the long haul.
“You have to be careful not to think you’re going to save the world on this,” Williams said. “Take each kid as an individual and give them love. Because if you love the kids, everything else is going to follow.”