Kent Williamson, 1957-2015
As executive director of NCTE for fifteen years, Kent Williamson led with clear vision, careful management, and generosity of spirit.
His ideas, strategies, and collegiality helped shape NCTE’s core mission and actions. We will long remember and honor a man whose firm leadership and gracious manner nurtured our professional association and all those who had the privilege of knowing him.
Tributes from Program Chair Linda Adler-Kassner
and NCTE Staff
- Linda Adler-Kassner
- Eileen Maley
- KaiLonnie Dunsmore
- Lu Ann Maciulla McNabb
- Kristen Suchor
- Lisa Fink
- Darren Cambridge
When I was drafting the call for proposals for CCCC 2016, Kent Williamson was never far from my thinking. I can’t remember when I met Kent – probably sometime in the early 2000s – but I can remember when I started to realize how much I had to learn from him. It was following a late-night conversation at the 2005 NCTE convention, where I had been lamenting both the influence that spin doctors like Karl Rove had on the public imagination and the ways in which writers and writing were framed in public discussions. Taking a dose of a medicine I now often administer, I thought: Enough complaining! Time to do something. The result was time spent with change makers thinking about how to adapt the strategies that they brought to their change-making efforts to the work of directing writing programs. These included community organizers, media strategists, political activists – and Kent.
Kent wasn’t a loud presence. He certainly wasn’t pushy, and it would be easy to walk by him in a crowded conference hallway and not notice him if you didn’t know who he was. But engage him in conversation for ten minutes – or, even better, a few hours – and he left an indelible mark. As Executive Director of NCTE for 15 years, Kent worked with NCTE presidents (and CCCC chairs) to consider critical questions: What does it mean to engage in literacy education in the 21st century? What should be the role of a disciplinary organization in helping literacy educators do their very best work? And how should that organization take up issues crucial to those educators in strategic ways in order to both support them, and proactively try to shape their working conditions? Kent challenged us as individuals and as organizations to truly engage these questions – not just talk about them, but do something about them, and do it in smart, strategic ways that would truly make a difference.
Consider the period of Kent’s tenure at NCTE, from 2000-2015. In 2000, the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that quickly became known as No Child Left Behind hadn’t been passed. By 2015 that legislation, along with initiatives like Race to the Top and the development and implementation of the Common Core Standards, had radically changed the landscape of both K-12 and postsecondary education. Under Kent’s leadership NCTE navigated these difficult conditions, creating everything from important policy statements to publications to legislative initiatives like the LEARN act to try to shape conditions for learning that allow students to thrive. At the same time, NCTE also undertook other initiatives – Advocacy Day, held each February in Washington, D.C.; the National Day on Writing, a day recognized by the U.S. Congress each year in November; the creation of joint statements like the Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing – that worked to shape those conditions. Kent also helped create the National Center for Literacy Education, a multi-disciplinary partnership, to engage others in this work, as well.
If Kent were reading this, I know what he’d say: “All of this was a collaboration.” It’s true – Kent never worked alone. He was a master coalition builder, an expert listener, someone whose ability to balance strategy and tactics by thinking about national, regional, and disciplinary contexts, about the work of teachers, about NCTE as an organization — was astounding. The fact that his contributions to CCCC, NCTE, and the work that many of us do are so ubiquitous, but that so few of us are aware of his amazing intelligence, his humor, and his tireless efforts, only provide more evidence for the claim. CCCC 2016 will be the first without Kent’s physical presence, but his spirit and his ideas are everywhere evident.
We’ll have two sessions at CCCC 2016 that will honor Kent’s memory. In session E.36, CCCC chairs will share memories of Kent, and we’ll invite audience members to share their own as well. In session B.35, we’ll honor Kent’s contribution to literacy learning, K-16. If you’re able to, please join one or both of these sessions to share in honoring Kent’s wonderful presence as a colleague, and his remarkable contributions.
As important as Kent was to CCCC and NCTE as organizations, it was the NCTE staff who saw him on a daily basis. I invited staff to share their memories; their vignettes contribute to a broader portrait of Kent as a person and a colleague. In Kent’s honor, the NCTE Executive Committee has created the Kent D. Williamson Policy and Advocacy Center which will be housed in the DC Office. Each year NCTE will name a Williamson Policy Advocate for a summer residency at the NCTE DC office so that a classroom teacher can meet with policymakers and educate them about practice in the classroom.
For more information on both programs, visit ncte.org.
Associate chair, Conference on College Composition and Communication
As friends we had common interests. Work, people, and most of all golf. We talked about them all. Of course talk of work brought about talk of people. Kent cared so much about people; all people. Especially the employees and their well-being.
You might be wondering, “so where does golf fit in?” Well we both loved the game as did other employees. Only difference, he was good at it and I’m not! But he knew how much I liked to play and being the kind hearted, caring person that he is, he would play in my group. We had several golf outings with co-workers and Kent was there for every one of them. And, he always ended up in my group. Poor guy.
We at least laughed and had great times. We actually discussed work (imagine that) while playing and still managed to have a great time!
So as most people knew him for his role with NCTE and his professional life, I was fortunate to see another side of Kent as my friend. Every time I play now, I think of him and how much he enjoyed the game. Which in turn makes me want to be a better golfer. He’s still pushing me to be do better even though he isn’t here physically. I’ll never forget him and all his encouragement in work and play.
Kent, I play on and I’m still not any better but I’ll keep trying!!
I came to work for NCTE because of the commitment Kent Williamson had to improving literacy teaching and learning by attending to the how organizational conditions create systemic opportunities for collaborative professional learning and inquiry. This vision, which led to the developed of the National Center for Literacy Education initiative and brought me on board, was quintessential Kent: practical (concrete actions, timelines, success markers); collaborative (a belief that there was no need for organizations to operate in competition but that partnership inherently be mutually beneficial) and passionately centered in teacher agency and ownership.
It wasn’t just the ideas that made NCTE a good fit for me, however, but the culture as well. I laughed—a lot—in my NCLE work with Kent. I can’t remember a meeting, whether virtual or face-to-face, where laughter wasn’t a characteristic of our work together. There were conversations and challenges that in other contexts might have involved tension or conflict; however, meetings that included Kent always seemed to have laughter and personal engagement. Part of this was his own humility in owning problems; part was his ability to keep respect for the person at the core of all conversations; and part was simply his enjoyment of life and ideas. I strive to bring into our school partnerships what Kent modeled in the work culture he created: kindness, passion, and the ability to recognize the unique assets and expertise that individuals bring and harness them in a strong collaborative team working towards a common vision.
When Kent passed away, NCTE lost a beloved leader and advocate. Kent’s vision led to the opening of an office in Washington, DC so English teachers from preschool through graduate school could have a voice in federal policy. He was instrumental in the creation of the policy analysis initiative to discern what trends were occurring within the fifty states and the District of Columbia.
Kent spoke passionately about teacher voice and their role in shaping the discussion. In his speech, From Perilous to Promising Times in Literacy Education, at the Allerton Conference in 2011, Kent concluded, “This is our opportunity to do something different. We must join together as never before to share the powerful work that is going on, almost undercover, in so many literacy classrooms. We must point out just how scantily clad the emperors of today’s education reforms are. Because, at the end of the day, they aren’t in the classroom. You are. If we invest our time and attention in each other, in our professional community, there is real promise for our second century of organized work together.”
Kent’s hope and vision was for NCTE to use teacher voice to shape policy to enhance comprehensive literacy, to create alliances in Washington to reach that goal and to establish NCTE as an organization that is respected as an “expert in its field.” By creating the Kent D. Williamson Policy and Advocacy Center, the NCTE Executive Committee intends to honor and continue Kent’s legacy of advocacy.
Lu Ann Maciulla McNabb
Kent was my mentor, colleague, and friend and he’s a reason I’ve been with NCTE and CCCC for over 12 years. His love of and support for this organization, its members and volunteers, and the NCTE staff were evident in everything he did. Kent really believed in my abilities and it’s with his encouragement that I took on the role of project manager for the National Center for Literacy Education (NCLE), in addition to my CCCC duties.
Together, we provided the best staff leadership to CCCC and its members that we could. I really did see us as Team CCCC (along with Eileen Maley of course!). I try to carry that torch every day, in every success and challenge. I often hear Kent’s voice advising me—reminding me of the importance of the work that we do in serving literacy educators.
Some of my favorite memories are of social events, either at NCTE headquarters or at the many, many NCTE and CCCC events we attended over the years. There was rarely a dull moment with Kent. His good humor was infectious and it was rare to see him without a smile. And if you ever had the pleasure of seeing him cut a rug, it was not to be missed!
I think what I miss most of all is the day-to-day work with Kent. He was an idea-man, which was both an exciting part of working with him, and a challenge! He always had an open-door policy and we provided the same to him. This meant lots of popping in and out of each other’s offices. Kent would always start with, “Kris,” (he’s the only person who has ever called me Kris and gotten away with it!), “I have something quick to run by you.” Invariably, it would end up being a long conversation and half of the time we’d end up on some other tangent. To this day, every time I see someone lurking at my door, I half expect it to be Kent with another idea to throw my way!
Kent truly was an amazing leader, and while he is missed every day, his legacy lives on in those of us who try to carry on his enthusiasm for, and commitment to, this incredible organization.
I came to work at NCTE after teaching elementary school for a number of years. While I don’t remember the content of my NCTE orientation meeting with Kent, I will never forget the enthusiasm he shared for the Council, the members and the work we do. I was fortunate to work closely with Kent around the ReadWriteThink.org site. He gave me a great deal of autonomy but he was always willing to be a sounding board. Kent was such a forward thinker. I loved watching him dream and often put those dreams into action. One of the things I miss most is Kent knocking on my window and waving good morning or hello. His smile was contagious and he could set the tone for the whole day. Kent was a one of a kind and I am so glad to have known him.
The opportunity to be mentored by Kent was a significant reason why I took the job he offered me in 2014. We had planned to work together closely shaping public policy to reflect the expertise of teachers through building alliances in Washington, but his illness cut that short.
Instead, I got my mentorship by proxy through the writing of 30 leading educators who valued Kent’s contributions to our organization and field. About a month after Kent’s death, in early July the NCTE Presidential team said they wanted to pull together a volume in Kent’s honor – and to have it ready in November for the convention. I agreed to co-edit the collection, knowing that it was a nearly impossible task because we’d need a completed manuscript by the beginning of September. Crazy.
It was the kind of challenge I’d imagine Kent would have relished. The fact that we made says a lot more about Kent than it does about me. Nearly thirty authors—all accomplished educators and scholars with perennially full plates—agreed to write chapters under wholly unreasonable deadlines. They all came through. Who else could inspire something like that?