For much of William Whitehurst’s youth, the future was scoring at the end of a drive on his school football team. He took life yard by yard, play by play.
Then, an assistant principal changed everything.
Whitehurst’s educational journey made a dramatic pivot from a passion for sports to a different kind of coaching environment - one in the schools. Now, he serves as principal of Marshall Elementary School, where he sees himself in so many of his students and takes action every day to lift them up.
About 85% of students attending Marshall Elementary School are below the poverty line, according to Whitehurst. It motivates him even more to give all students the opportunity to succeed.
“I want my students to understand that it's not a burden growing up the way they did, or where they did. In fact, that's going to be your superpower,” Whitehurst said. “You're going to go far, I just have to give you those tools to harness that superpower and turn that into something that you can utilize out here in this real world.”
His mission begins by investing and believing in his students and his teachers - something that impacted the trajectory of his own life.
The Power of a Push
Whitehurst was finishing up high school when his interest for education was sparked through a connection with his assistant principal, who became a close mentor and confidant. He became a teaching cadet but his primary focus was on football. Halfway through his senior year, however, his plan to pursue football wasn’t coming together.
“By the second semester, I kind of lost my way. Sports wasn't panning out the way that I thought it would. I didn't get a lot of offers, the ones that I was looking for,” Whitehurst recalled. “So, it kind of left me depressed. I wasn't thinking about the academic accolades that I had acquired and where those could take me.”
“I was just in a sunken place.”
As the year came to a close and Whitehursts’ next step was still unclear, he received an envelope in the mail announcing his acceptance to South Carolina State University. His first reaction was pure confusion - because he hadn’t ever applied. He showed it to his assistant principal, baffled.
“She told me ‘Yeah, I did that. And you have to be there on Saturday. If your parents can't take you, I'll take you.’ But my parents did, and that was one of the best decisions that was ever made for me,” Whitehurst said with a wide smile. “And that was the springboard for my educational process.”
As Marshall Elementary School Principal, Whitehurst still credits all his supporters along the way and knows the value of having professionals and leaders who invest in both teachers and students. Those mentors made his journey through teaching and leading all the more personal, he said - even more so when he became a father himself.
“I see myself in my students and I see my own kids in my students too. And my daughter was once my student,” Whitehurst said. “So it changed the way that I saw the job. It changed the way that I engaged with everything because I was not only fighting for each parent’s kid, but I was fighting for my own kids, too.”
Leading Without Limits
Whitehurst began his educational career teaching eighth grade math and eventually became a counselor, assistant principal and now principal. Over the last several years he participated in NIET’s South Carolina Principal Leadership Network (SCPLN), which offered an immersive and supportive environment to develop professionally. Along the way, he has treated each step in his career as a class in itself.
His attention to preparation and detail helps him lead his own staff in a concise, direct manner - and it all came from learning from others, Whitehurst said.
“When I'm working with teachers, I build relationships with them, look at ways to improve what they're doing already and then serve as that constant push,” Whitehurst said.
This year, he and his team are focusing on coaching, Whitehurst said. As a former athlete he is used to working as part of a team and receptive to being coached. His approach to learning and improving is a unifying force that helps keep everyone on the same page. He is sure to show his team that even he needs coaching, too, and welcomes his instructional coaches’ feedback on his own improvement.
“I make sure that my folks can see my instructional coaches coaching me so that I can come back and coach teachers,” Whitehurst explained. “It's important to understand that data is tied to a student, which is tied to a direct need. We can’t take it personally when looking at data because the reality is we have to address some things to ensure that we get the desired outcome and the only way to do that is through coaching.”
By modeling being open to feedback and having a learning mindset, Whitehurst offers a leaders-go-first example for his teachers and staff, which he ultimately wants to reach students.
“It's always been about helping a teacher see their own potential. And once they see their own potential and understand that I'm there to support them, truly to support them for their own development, then they rise to the occasion and become a greater version of themselves,” Whitehurst said. “I treat that as a moment to say, ‘all I ask is you pay it forward with your students because everything that I just did for you is exactly what we want to be for students every day.’”
A Path With a Purpose
As a principal, Whitehurst now takes progress yard-by-yard in a different way, he said. One of the biggest lessons in his role as principal is that slow progress may not be easy to wait for, but is the most sustainable way to help students and teachers accomplish goals and build a solid foundation.
“I had to learn to take a step back and appreciate the growth that you see, no matter how small it might be. Then that data informs decisions about your next steps,” Whitehurst said. “If you keep the end goal in mind, but focus on the small increments during the journey, then you will arrive exactly where you need to be.”
It hasn’t always been an easy task for him, especially considering his time as a competitive, fast-paced athlete that he still thinks back on fondly. At the end of the day, though, reflecting back on his path and how he ended up in such a rewarding role in education still brings tears to his eyes.
“It burns a little bit deeper because I understand what the parents are going through because my parents went through that. I understand what some of the students are going through, not having the best of environments to go to.” Whitehurst said. “Now that I'm on the other side, it really sticks to me. I can be in the middle of a data talk with my leadership team and almost in tears because I want it that bad for my students because I understand that it wasn't football or basketball that saved my life. It was education. Education saved my life.”