Great teachers earn the respect of their students by setting the tone early and consistently. Not only did Mrs. Mary Williamson-Burley accomplish this in her kindergarten classroom, she also set the tone early and consistently for the entire Jefferson City School System and community. As the traditional community breakfast came to a close each year, it was the angelic voice of Mrs. Burley that permeated throughout the hearts of all as she sang, "God Bless America," setting the tone for the next 180 days.
Raised by a strong mother who taught her to be the person who shows others how to do the right thing, Mrs. Mary Williamson-Burley was inspired to enter the teaching profession by her first grade teacher, Mrs. Dee Hinton Robinson. This week, we are honored to feature Mrs. Burley, retired JES kindergarten teacher. Mrs. Burley, a 1965 graduate of Bryan High, earned her bachelor’s degree in elementary education from Knoxville College, a historically black liberal arts college in Knoxville, Tennessee and a master’s degree from the University of Saint Francis in Fort Wayne, Indiana. She began teaching in Fort Wayne, Indiana before coming to Jefferson Elementary in 1974.
From day one, Mrs. Mary Burley invested in the school culture at Jefferson City Schools. When the gavel was struck signifying that it was time to prepare for the welcome and engagement of students in rigorous and relevant learning experiences at JCS, Mrs. Burley’s focus turned to the students entrusted to her. “Education was important to me,” stated Mrs. Burley, “and I wanted to impress that upon the students. I wanted to give all the students an opportunity to learn as much as possible. I wanted them to know that they were special. I wanted them to learn.”
Mrs. Diane Oliver, former Jefferson Elementary School Principal, states, “What set Mary apart in the classroom was that she intuitively understood that first and foremost all students must feel the love and support of their teacher before they can reach their full emotional, social, and academic potential.” According to Mrs. Oliver, Mrs. Burley understood what the children could not express. She knew that they needed the assurance that they were seen and valued before they could feel safe and secure within the learning process. Thus, Mrs. Burley began each school year building community within her classroom.
No matter the gender, ethnicity, or socioeconomic background of the students, Mrs. Burley instilled in the heart of each individual that no one would be more or less special than another while in her care. She wanted all of her students to love each other, further stating, “Even if our skin color was different, I tried to emphasize that everyone should be treated with love and respect. Love and respect should be first in everything we do.” With that in mind, she leveled the playing field and learning began.
With community and trust established, Mrs. Burley began engaging students in the kindergarten curriculum in creative and innovative ways. Understanding that children learn differently and need to feel many successes along the way, she planned and delivered age-appropriate instruction that tapped all the senses. With her beautiful and dynamic voice, she wove music, movement, application, and social learning into a beautiful tapestry of learning opportunities. Kindergarten students over the years remember Mrs. Burley and the many positive opportunities encountered in her classroom. These experiences will forever be embedded in their very being and will serve as a ripple effect for years to come. What better way for these precious students to begin their first formal school experience than with an exemplary teacher like Mrs. Mary Burley.
In addition to her love for the vast number of students she has taught over the years, Mrs. Burley also loves her family. She is the mother of two beautiful daughters, Heidi and Hollye, both of whom are graduates of Jefferson High School, and she beams with pride at the mention of her granddaughter, Zhoey Maryah Williamson. Mrs. Burley loves that her daughters were a part of the school system where she taught. “I always told my girls that they could do and be anything they wanted to be. It makes my heart happy to see them succeed. I encouraged them to always stay focused and to never quit.”
Heidi is a graduate of Georgia State University in Atlanta where she majored in African-American Studies and English. In addition, she recently earned a master’s degree in producing for television and film from American University in Washington, D.C. Hollye, the youngest daughter, retired from the United States Air Force in October 2020 and is currently attending Columbia Southern University in Orange Beach, Alabama pursuing a master’s degree in organizational leadership and will graduate in October 2021.
Mrs. Mary Williamson-Burley, a dynamic and well-respected teacher, retired in 2013. She made a tremendous impact on the teaching profession and school culture, as well as on colleagues, parents, students, and the community at large. Many people will become famous in their lifetime. Few will become great and inspire others as Mrs. Burley has done in all walks of life.