History Teacher of the Year Dr. Tyrone W. Williams in his classroom at OPRF High School on Thursday September 7, 2023 | Todd Bannor

OPRF teacher Tyrone Williams Jr. has been named the 2023 Illinois History Teacher of the Year by the New York-based Gilder Lehrman Institute, the nation’s leading organization dedicated to K-12 history education.

As teacher of the year, Williams receives a $1,000 cash payment, a core archive of books on American history and Gilder Lehrman educational materials, and recognition at a local ceremony. He is also now one of 53 finalists for the 2023 National History Teacher of the Year award.

Williams, 49, who is in his 19th year teaching at OPRF, was nominated for the award by OPRF senior Anna Miller and her parents, Amanda and Chris Miller. When she was a sophomore, Miller was in Williams’ AP U.S. History class, and his teaching sparked a passion for history in her. 

“Before Dr. Williams’ class I wasn’t super interested in history; it was one of the subjects with English, science, whatever, and I always like to say that Dr. Williams kind of brought history into Technicolor for me,” Miller said. “And I think he added a depth of understanding to the study of history that I hadn’t met anywhere else and it really motivated me to continue studying it and I think it’s part of the reason why I want to major in history in higher education.”

Miller especially liked how Williams focused on the attitudes and perspectives of people in the past and not just on facts and dates.

“He deviated a little bit from the AP course, but I think overall I learned a lot more about history than if we had just stuck with the curriculum,” Miller said.

This year, Williams is teaching two sections of AP U.S. History, two sections of the new pilot AP class in African American Studies and one section of African American History.

History Teacher of the Year Dr. Tyrone W. Williams and students in his classroom at OPRF High School on Thursday September 7, 2023 | Todd Bannor

Students in his eighth period AP African American Studies class said they also enjoy the passion for the subject that Williams brings to the class and the way that he strives to include student voices in his class.

“He’s very spirited, which really adds to the lessons,” said junior Langston Short. “He makes it very interactive and he likes to include all the people. It’s a really open space where I feel like everyone has the ability to speak their mind without being judged.” 

Junior Riley Bazillion said that the vibe in Williams’s classroom is very welcoming. 

“Even if you don’t want to talk, he still finds a way to include you in the conversation,” Bazillion said.

Williams said he consciously sets out to create a student-focused classroom that features a lot of discussion and a minimum of lecturing. Williams said his style of teacher has evolved from his earliest days as a teacher, which featured more lecturing.

“It’s really about the students and the more opportunities you can give them to, you know, negotiate the task at hand the better it is for them,” Williams said. “I didn’t want to be the lone expert in the room. I wanted to develop the expertise of my students and because of that I needed to make room for their voices, their ideas. I needed to make room for them to, you know, make mistakes, to fix their mistakes.”

Williams spent the first 11 years of his life living in Kingston, Jamaica, before his family immigrated to the United States and settled in Highland Park when he was almost 12. He later became an outstanding sprinter who ran track at the University of Illinois, where he was a member of two Big 10 championship 1600 meter relay teams.

His experience as an immigrant sparked his passion for history.

“When you’re an immigrant, one of the things that you’re always trying to do is figure out when and where you fit in in American society,” Williams said. “I always had a deep desire to connect back to my roots, to find out who I really was. I realized that I was really interested in learning about other people’s stories, and in particular the stories of people pushed to the margins of society.”

As he began his study of history, Williams was drawn to the stories of outsiders and marginalized people.

“I was fascinated by the stories my teachers wouldn’t share; I was always fascinated by the narratives that I knew existed but never made it into the curriculums in my classroom,” Williams said. “That yearning, that desire to learn more about this country, to learn more about the kids that I was sitting next to, and again to learn more about myself really created an opportunity for me to, you know, to want to know more about the historical underpinnings of our country.”

He said he wants the study of history to include as many people as possible.

Williams earned his B.A. from the University of Illinois in 1997, and a master’s degree in the teaching of history in 2000. He earned his Ph.D. in Education, Policy, Organization and Leadership from the University of Illinois in 2021.

His first experience as a high school teacher came at his alma mater, Highland Park High School, where he took over an AP European History class as a long-term substitute when the teacher became ill. He then went to Hinsdale Central where he, unusual for a student teacher, took over an AP U.S. History class.

At OPRF, Williams coached the sprinters and hurdlers on the girls track team for about 10 years and also was the sponsor of the Freedom Readers Book Club and the Global Student Leadership group. For many years, he kept an open chess board in his classrooms and students would drop by during lunch period or his free period to play chess with him.

“It was a conversation starter,” Williams said. “I relish the role to be a mentor to anybody who desires to have that kind of relationship as a teacher.” 

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