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The Parker Weekly

The student news site of Francis W. Parker School

The Parker Weekly

The student news site of Francis W. Parker School

The Parker Weekly

Welcoming Williams

New Mental Health Professional Joins the Parker Community
Photo credit: Benjamin Kagan
Upper School Counselor Kirstin Williams works in her new office.

Stored in Kirstin Williams’ home office is a soon-to-be full, coral-colored box decorated with textured papers and gold and silver star stickers. In it, she keeps dozens of letters given to her by former students. The box is overflowing with detailed and decorated letters, and this is due to Williams’ desire to have a significant impact on her students. From Gill, Mass., to Chicago, her warm and positive energy builds connections and communities. She brings her outgoing personality to Parker as the new Upper School Counselor, replacing Dr. Gary Childrey after his retirement last year.

A native Chicagoan, Williams attended high school at Jones College Prep where she spent her own health classes talking to her friends in the back of the classroom. She recalls her health classes being “terrible,” and that a coach “would just press play, and that was the teacher.” This class would later on inform her own teaching and play a role in shaping the thoughtful and intentional teacher, counselor, and person she is now. 

After her sub-par health class experience, followed two years later by her graduation from Jones, Williams went on to Spelman College where she earned a Bachelor of Arts in English and Comparative Women’s Studies. She then continued on an English path and received her Master of Arts in English and teaching writing from Western Illinois University. Williams majored in English because she believed it was a career that could open up many possibilities for her. 

“At first, I actually wanted to work for E-news doing entertainment reporting… but with time, I realized that that wasn’t meaningful enough,” Williams said.

In searching for meaning, after her second year of graduate school, Williams found herself interning at a New England boarding school over the summer. After graduation, she started working full-time as a high school English teacher, teaching a class focusing on Brazil with both English and history components. 

It was here that her efforts to form community were so successful. “The way in which I create my classrooms, I’m really intentional about building community to the point that these kids who were not even in my dorms would come to my dorm during study hall just to hang out or talk,” Williams said.

During her time at the boarding school, Williams had the opportunity to take her students on a trip to Brazil. On that trip, she received news that a student’s boyfriend had committed suicide. She still vividly remembers the feeling of having to sit with and relay the sad information to her students and having to support them while at the same time trying to calm her own emotions. “I remember having a conversation with this group one night, and we were laying in hammocks and just talking,” Williams recalled. “One of the kids said, ‘Kirstin, you’re really good at this.’ That was the first seed that was planted,” Williams said.

After three years of working at Northfield Mount Hermon and a pivotal trip to Brazil, Williams returned to Chicago to work at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools as a high school English teacher once again. The seed began to grow, and Williams’s ideas of a career shift solidified. 

Williams recalls enjoying the start of class, where she would get to talk to her students, more than the actual teaching. “I realized I was spending more time talking about their feelings than I was about ‘the Great Gatsby,’” Williams said.

This realization led Williams to return to school five years after finishing her masters in English. Williams earned her Master of Social Work at the University of Chicago and soon after went to Boston Children’s Hospital as a Psychiatry Post-Masters of Social Work (MSW) Social Work Fellow. Immediately after completing her one-year fellowship, Williams returned toChicago and began working at Compass Health Center as the Adolescent Group Therapist and then as the Adolescent Primary Clinical Therapist. Following almost two years at Compass, Williams moved to Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago to work as a Clinical Social Worker in the Psychiatric Partial Hospitalization Program. 

Her positions at Compass and Lurie’s both involved working with kids in need of crisis stabilization. Williams loved both jobs but remembers a very high-stress environment and “constant crisis.” “There were days where I would cry on the way home, or leave work worrying about these kids and hoping that they’d come back the next day,” Williams said.

As an incoming school counselor and health teacher, Williams is excited for a more balanced role where she will work one-on-one with students as well as with students in her health classes. Leaving Compass and Lurie’s, she knows that her experiences have made her a much better clinician and therapist with skills that she can apply in her counseling and teaching at Parker as well.

Williams believes that her experience in acute care settings can assist her in Parker’s non-acute environment as well. “Sometimes, when you come from an acute care setting, you have a higher tolerance,” Williams said. She feels that people who don’t have experience in acute care settings can struggle to handle situations where kids are struggling or engaging in harmful behaviors because they can be skittish or escalate things when they don’t need to be escalated. “That kind of sensitivity, that knowledge, that nuance is something that I could apply in this setting,” Williams said. 

Health teachers cover a wide range of topics, including sensitive ones which require knowledge and nuance. Upper School Counselor Winifred Kearns recognizes that the reality is that it is impossible to “dig deeply enough into topics and build skill sets effectively if you are trying to do everything.” She feels that every topic has priority and urgency, but there is not enough time to cover everything. Because of this, Williams believes that the importance of teaching health is that “so much of what is discussed in health class is about development; developing your identity, developing your sense of self, and developing good practices for self-care… so I think of health as a way that you can cast a wider net to talk about these things.” 

Williams’s identity, background, personality, and past experience all contribute to her skills. As a part of the interview process, Williams taught a sample freshman health class. Coco DeLeon, a sophomore who attended the class she taught, remembers her having “a very positive energy.” Kearns also recalls thinking how Williams was “extremely warm” and that she had “very high energy and creativity, yet was very thoughtful about her words, and how she might fit into the community here,” Kearns said. “That’s a very beautiful and rare combination.” 

In a time of so much growth, DeLeon feels that the fact that she is a person of color could help a lot of students. “I know there are a lot of struggles with inclusion and micro-aggressions, and a white teacher might not have that first-hand experience or know exactly how to handle it because they’ve never experienced it themselves,” DeLeon added.

Beyond her energy, creativity, and thoughtfulness, Williams is intentional in building community, teaching meaningful lessons that resonate with her students, bringing music and art into her teaching, and ultimately creating safe spaces. She works toward her goal of being someone she wished she had when she was younger. “If I could just be one person that kids feel comfortable and safe enough to go to, to feel seen by, to feel listened to and validated by, what a world of a difference that could make,” Williams said. I think, man, what could I have been if I had someone like me at that age, too.”

What stands out to Williams about Parker is  the school culture. There is so much light and bright and happiness here,” Williams said. The high value that Parker holds in community is one that she holds personally as well.

Aside from work, Williams loves music, musicals, art, her Peloton, and Formula One Racing. She has a blog, ‘Kermit Says’, after her nickname in high school, where she posts about self-love, self-care, advice, and life lessons. 

In the future, she hopes to write books about social-emotional awareness and mental health. She has already started writing the first. She also aims to one day start a private practice.

For the moment, Williams is excited to return to work in a school, build a safe space in her classroom, put down roots, and ultimately have a good time.

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About the Contributor
Lula Notz
Lula Notz, Copy Editor
Lula Notz is so excited to start her second year on "The Weekly" as a copy editor. When she isn't trying to come up with an interesting lede or looking up synonyms for words to make them sound smarter, she can be found on the tennis court, sipping an iced beverage, or sending her friends cute photos of her cats.