“I remember he said, ‘How come my other teacher says I’m bad, then?’ And my heart just broke and broke and broke into so many pieces right then and there. I want to be the one who reminds him that he’s so good, and that he’s so smart, that he has so much ambition, that he’s creative,"


Vernesha Williams

At five years old, Benjamin Buckley-Green was starting to believe there was something wrong with him. He was learning it at school, over and over again: He made too much noise. He moved too much. On what felt like a daily basis, his parents received phone calls about his behavior. He kept being sent to the principal’s office. Before school, he would hesitate before leaving the car — and after school, there were tears. 

Benjamin’s parents took him to behavioral counseling therapy, but there were no problems to speak of. When he developed a throat tic, they took him to an ear, nose and throat doctor who asked if he was under a tremendous amount of stress. When Benjamin told his parents that he just felt like he didn’t belong, they decided enough was enough. It was time to switch schools. 

Leize Gaillard and her husband, Ben Buckley-Green, took Benjamin out of the small, selective private school that had caused their son so much turmoil and looked for an alternative. They assumed they would be making the switch to a public school. But once they toured Compass Collegiate Academy, a tuition-free public charter school near their home in Charleston, South Carolina, they knew they had found somewhere Benjamin could really belong.

That reassurance came from seeing how Benjamin behaved in Vernesha Williams’ kindergarten class. The difference was immediate. As Williams taught letter writing and handwriting, Benjamin was engaged. He seemed relaxed and comfortable in the classroom, although he didn’t know anyone else. While instrumental music played, Williams told the class over and over again how proud she was of their work. She explained to Benjamin how she wanted him to write his name during the class exercise and told him he was doing a good job.  “I remember he said, ‘How come my other teacher says I’m bad, then?’ And my heart just broke and broke and broke into so many pieces right then and there.  I’m just so sorry that he internalized that,” Williams said. She knew she needed to intervene. “I want to be the one who reminds him that he’s so good, and that he’s so smart, that he has so much ambition, that he’s creative,” she said. 

Williams had been warned about Benjamin’s supposed behavior problems, but she couldn’t understand what those problems were — there were no issues with Benjamin at all. In fact, it was quite the opposite. He was a class leader, she told his parents. There were no outbursts; in fact, he was very respectful.

"They are mirrors right now. They take in everything.”


Vernesha Williams, on her students

Benjamin’s parents believe that their son was almost put on a path to disengage from education entirely; a path that so many other kids are forced onto by being taught at school that there is something wrong with them. But by finding a teacher who cares for her students, and who treats them with respect, Benjamin’s natural love of learning was set free. 

“There are children out there who are currently not starting off their path towards education in the long term, feeling good about themselves and moving forward,” said Ben Buckley-Green, Benjamin’s father. But to look inside William’s classroom is to see a room full of kids who actually feel good about themselves and want to learn, he said.

Williams knows how important it is to fortify children’s emotional wellbeing at a young age. She started teaching at the fifth grade level. She saw that her students needed guidance to regulate their emotions and how they interacted with others, and they weren’t getting that from the basic curriculum she had been instructed to give them.

As a kindergarten teacher now in charge of 23 students, Williams feels that she has the chance, and the responsibility, to teach kids those crucial life skills early — and to empower them to speak up for themselves. She wants her students to know that they should be celebrated, and even if they aren’t doing their best, that they should be given tools to grow. 

“I want my kids to be able to communicate for themselves, to think about how others are feeling,” she said. “I want to fill their bank with positivity … they are mirrors right now. They take in everything and they just regurgitate it.”  

At this young age, what adults say is what kids internalize — and teachers are uniquely positioned to be the first trusted adult in a child’s life outside of their immediate family, Williams said. Teachers want to be respected, but they have to respect their students first, she said. Otherwise, students are being set up to disengage at school.

“I feel like I changed how he viewed himself,” Williams said, reflecting on her time as a teacher with Benjamin. “If he would have held onto that old feeling, I’m sure he would not have been as motivated to be as creative.”

"If we want society or even the world to go in a different direction, we have to start with our kids."


Vernesha Williams

Williams took a leap of faith when she joined Compass Collegiate Academy. She had been offered a job there previously, but when her old colleague Rachel Brailov called her a second time in August 2021 to ask if she would join the up-and-coming school, it felt like the right choice. She was excited to teach kindergarten and to join a new school just before it opened.

She packed up and moved from Columbia, South Carolina to Charleston within days of accepting the job. Within days, she found an apartment for her and her dog. That first year was really tough, she said, because her last school in Orangeburg threatened her teaching license after she resigned. Although South Carolina is an at-will state, meaning employees can quit at any time, the rules for teachers are more complicated — and school boards can suspend teachers for leaving their jobs before the end of their yearly contracts. 

Those external challenges made the transition difficult, but within Compass, Williams felt welcomed and supported from the beginning. She’s known Brailov, the Dean of Academics at Compass Collegiate Academy, since her first year of teaching at Mellichamp Elementary School. Williams caught Brailov’s eye as an innovative and passionate teacher.

“I was like, this is a rock star in our building who I’ve not heard of, and now I’m seeing it for myself,” Brailov said. She wanted Williams to work at her school because she only wanted the best of the best — and now, she can’t imagine what kindergarten at Compass would look like without her. “I don’t think she realizes how much she has established as what we think is best practice for kindergarten … our standards are as high as they can be because she’s on our team,” Brailov said. Williams has a way of making everything special for her students — from going all-out for every holiday to setting up “gallery walks” where the kids can compliment each other’s art work and assignments. 

Teaching isn’t for everyone, Brailov said — it requires filling multiple roles, from acting as a social worker to being a guidance counselor, and it requires a long-term vision of what kind of impact your classroom will have on someone years down the line. Williams is someone who clearly sees teaching as an investment in that child’s future, and who knows how important it is to set a positive foundation for learning at a young age, she said. 

“She knows from teaching fifth grade what it can look like five years later, for someone who’s not invested or who doesn’t see school as a place they belong,” Brailov said. “Her and I talk about that all the time. ‘Can you imagine, if we had these kinds in kindergarten, what we could have done differently?’ She really holds onto that, that she is that person now.”

Williams with Benjamin and his parents, Leize Gaillard and Ben Buckley-Green

Despite her natural ability in the classroom, Williams didn’t always want to be a teacher. When she was younger, she thought about being a lawyer, or choosing a job that would provide her with more income. But she didn’t feel any passion to pursue a career just for money — and her mom had been a teacher all her life. So she brought her laptop to a college basketball game and applied to Teach for America. As soon as she started teaching, she knew she was on the path to fulfill a greater purpose. 

“If we want society or even the world to go in a different direction, we have to start with our kids,” she said. “We assume that they don’t know a lot or can’t handle a lot, but they absolutely can. When they are respected and given the ability to be trusted, you will see kids go above and beyond. You will be so surprised. They show you exactly how successful they are willing to be at a young age.”

Photos by Chrisman Studios

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