Rural roots: The making of a teaching legacy

How education, family, and football forged a future in teaching for a small town standout

Taylor McWilliams stands in front of cotton gin in her home town with the word "New Deal Gin Co" painted on the brick exterior.
Produced by Anne Bannister & Laura Mellet; edited by Anne Bannister; cinematography by Anne Bannister & Brian Diggs

Taylor and her boyfriend Cody, competed for the Valedictorian rank back in high school. Cody says teaching is a natural fit for Taylor. “ She’s very good at connecting with people, especially connecting to kids.”

Rural roots run deep

Raised just outside of Lubbock, in New Deal, Texas, Taylor learned early on how to study hard, help others, and enjoy a six-man football game under the Friday night lights. School wasn’t just the heart of her community, it was the center of her life.

Taylor’s father Wade spent his childhood moving from town to town. His father was a middle school math and science teacher, and a six-man football coach, and his mother also was a teacher.

Six-man football is played in small districts that aren’t large enough to field a full 11-man team. The field is smaller and the game faster. Because there are fewer defensive players, there are more touchdowns.

The family followed coaching jobs around rural Texas. One thing always remained consistent: the schools. Wade always found himself in an environment where he received one-on-one attention from teachers and had an opportunity to participate and excel in a range of athletic and academic activities. He wanted that same experience for his kids.

Taylor, the oldest of the four McWilliams children thrived in this educational environment. While attending high school in New Deal, Taylor participated in cheerleading, track, cross country, and one-act plays. She was selected for the homecoming court, and graduated Salutatorian. Her now boyfriend, Cody, stole the Valedictorian rank, something her family won’t let her forget.

“Graduating from New Deal and having 40 kids in my class, you always felt you had the backing of so many people,” Taylor says. “I knew everybody that I went to school with. A lot of times you knew their siblings and their parents. It was just a real good sense of community.”

Initial skepticism turns into support

While Taylor felt certain about changing her career path and becoming a teacher, her parents were slower to adjust to the change in plans. Her father, in particular, had been very excited about the prospect of having a doctor in the family.

“I thought pediatrics was a good fit for her,” Wade explains. “She has always been top of her class.”

Taylor’s usual bright smile falters for a moment as she remembers a conversation with her dad. “When I told him I wanted to be a teacher, you could tell that there was a little bit of, ‘What? Why?’ He was never upset about it or discouraged. It was just not what he thought I was going to do with my life.”

Wade explains his early hesitation. He grew up the child of two rural teachers. He didn’t want Taylor to have the same struggles his family had. After several long heart-to-heart conversations, Wade was in full support of his daughter’s plans.

“For Taylor, it’s never been about the money, which is great. It’s about doing what she loves to do and what she’s happy doing. I can’t knock that. It’s how my parents were.”

Taylor enrolled at Texas Tech University in the Fall of 2015. She declared a major in multidisciplinary studies with a concentration in elementary math and science. Wade helped her find her first apartment and set up a budget.

In Spring of 2018, Raise Your Hand Texas awarded Taylor the Charles Butt Scholarship for Aspiring Teachers.

Taylor says receiving the scholarship reaffirmed that she is on the right path. “My family is so proud. Dad’s definitely flipped his mind on the whole teaching thing because it’s something I’m passionate about.”

Taylor considers her father, Wade, her hero. (Right) Currie McWilliams was known to all as “Coach Mac.”

Coaching lessons from one generation to another

In sixth grade, Taylor had her grandfather as her science teacher.

Currie Harris was known to all as “Coach Mac.” He was a tall and wiry man, tanned from the West Texas sun. In addition to coaching and teaching, he took on ranching jobs. Those that knew him say he liked to joke around, but had high expectations, and always pushed his students and players to meet those expectations.

“He had very strong beliefs and values.” Taylor remembers, “There are politics in small schools. Last names are a big deal a lot of times. He did not play last names, he did not play favorites. If you were the right player to be on the field, you were on the field and if you weren’t, then you weren’t. I really liked that about him.”

Like all legends, Coach Mac had his vices. “I remember it was one his traits. It’s a hundred degrees outside. He is outside smoking and drinking black coffee, then, he would come in and eat Oreos. Those were his things. Sweets, coffee, and smoking. It caught up with him, eventually.”

Coach Mac passed away after a battle with lung cancer on Sept. 4, 2017.

Taylor says her grandfather waited until the night before he died to call the school and ask them to find a replacement. The school year was about to start. He held on until the very end. That’s who he was. That’s how dedicated he was.

To Taylor, Coach Mac had always been her granddad, but it wasn’t until his funeral that she fully understood the legacy he created as a teacher, coach, and mentor.

“It was crazy to realize he was a grandfather to me and, of course, he had an impact on my life. He meant so much to all of these people, I don’t even know who they are. Kids who he had last year to kids he had twenty years ago. It was amazing to see how much he really impacted people.”

Wade says his father was thrilled Taylor was planning to follow in his footsteps as a teacher. He says the two had lots of long conversations about her classes at Texas Tech and strategies for managing a classroom. Wade lights up at these memories. He beams with pride in both his father and daughter.

Taylor is currently a student teacher at Thomas Elementary in Slaton ISD as part of the TechTeach Across Rural Texas program.

Investing in rural education

At Texas Tech, Taylor enrolled in a program called TechTeach Across Rural Texas. The emphasis of the program is working with rural school districts to grow and retain talented teachers.

This semester Taylor is student teaching at Cathelene Thomas Elementary in Slaton ISD, a small town, southeast of Lubbock.  Her mentor teacher, Kim Dimmick, describes Taylor as a “go-getter,” always ready to jump in and help out.  “You can tell that she can interact with kids and she wants to make a personal relationship with them. We’ve had some students that she’s invited to lunch with us. Since then, they start showing more encouragement and confidence.”

Through her program and in conversations with district leaders, Taylor has begun to see some of the challenges rural schools face. It’s hard to bring in and keep quality teachers in isolated areas. There are often fewer resources, limited access to technology, and a significant number of students who live in poverty. She also sees the benefits. “There’s a lot of pride out in rural schools in what they’re doing. They may be low socioeconomic but they’re living. They’re happy where they are and that’s a great family to be in. You’re not in a school, you’re really in a family.”

Taylor loved growing up in a small town and her school experience. “There is a lot of my experiences and a lot of values that I have growing up in a rural area that I want to pass onto kids.”

The McWilliams family poses for a group photo following the end of a Friday Night Football game.

The McWilliams family regroups at the end of the Petersburg vs. Happy football game.

Friday night football

On Friday nights, many rural Texas communities shut down and their families gather under bright stadium lights to cheer on their high school football team. On this particularly chilly November night, the McWilliams family drives an hour north from New Deal to the town of Happy for an away game. They know that tonight, the odds are stacked against their team. In the stands, Taylor, the oldest of the four McWilliams children, and her parents pass around blankets and hand warmers and cheer on the players. They know that tonight, the odds are stacked against their team.

In the stands, Wade jumps to his feet shouting encouragements to the Petersburg players. Coaching is in his blood. With him, Christie, Taylor, and Cody add their voices to the cheers.

Taylor’s three siblings have all dispersed to perform their roles for the evening. Colby is a junior at Petersburg High School and usually plays running back and linebacker. Tonight, he’s on the bench, nursing a sprained shoulder he received during a tackle a few weeks ago. He fidgets, frustrated by having to sit on the sidelines. Brooklyn is a high school freshman. She cheers and plays in the marching band. Corbin, the youngest, who plays football at the junior high, is serving as the high school team’s waterboy.

At half-time, the Petersburg team is up 12-8 points. Wade warns it won’t last.

Tonight—just as Wade was surprised by his daughter’s choice to become a teacher—he is surprised by the outcome of the football game. Petersburg maintained its halftime lead and upset its opponent 30-14, qualifying the New Deal team for the six-man 1A D1 playoffs. And just as the team seems to be finding its way on the field, Taylor is finding her way in the classroom and furthering her family’s legacy of changing students’ lives forever.

(Left) Kristie, Wade, Taylor, and Cody cheer on the Petersburg football team from the stands. (Right) Colby McWilliams supports his team from the sidelines as he recovers from a shoulder injury earlier in the season.