This is part of the Learning to Learn series, where I’ve been interviewing working mothers with school-age children to understand how their learning experiences as kids shaped who they are as working professionals and as mothers raising the next generation of learners and doers.
[Read Last Week’s Learning to Learn on “Failing Better Next Time“]
Hey! Great to see you. So, why don’t you introduce yourself and tell everyone a little bit about you?
I’m Nataki Williams. I’m the current SVP of finance at The Guardian News and Media. I am the mother of an almost 8-year-old beautiful little girl Olivia. I volunteer on a board for a charter school in Brooklyn, Ivy Hill Preparatory Charter School. I’m the board treasurer and founding board member there.
Wonderful. I’m so glad to be here talking to you today. So, we’re thinking about learning and how messages you got as a kid either do or don’t impact you now, and then what messages you want to transition or transfer onto your child. So, why don’t we start with you as a kid? As you said, Olivia’s eight, so when you were an eight-year-old who were you as a student? How did teachers see you? What messages did you get about yourself as a learner?
As an eight-year-old, I had a really big vocabulary. My dad has a big vocabulary – and still does – and I don’t think I’ll ever match his vocabulary. But he had a huge vocabulary and he’s always spoken to me like an adult. I got really good at deductive reasoning skills because if I didn’t know the meaning of a word, he would make me go look it up in a dictionary.
So at a very young age, I picked up on context clues and really started to master the dictionary terminology so that I wouldn’t have to always look up words in the dictionary. As a result, I was perceived to be very intelligent because of my communication skills and the word choices that I was using.
Naturally, I was strong in math. Math just came to me pretty naturally. The combination of the two at that age is genius. You know, you have a good vocabulary and you can do some math.
In hindsight, which I’d like to share because I do think it’s important, I strongly believe that I actually had a mild learning disability. It was just undetected because I was able to work around it so well. But I 100% believe that I had a mild form of dyslexia.
It made my reading comprehension really difficult. I’d see a sentence and see a word that was wrong and then, “oh wait that didn’t make sense,” and I had to go back to the sentence again. So it made reading painful because it always took me so long. And it still takes me a decent amount of time now. I’ve gotten better, but it still takes me a little longer than most to read, I feel. Or it might just be my social anxiety.
But because of the perception of my intelligence, teachers didn’t really pay much attention to me. It’s like “ah, she’s smart, she’s got it, she’s fine.”
The habit it formed for me was to pay attention in class because I didn’t trust my ability to go home, read a text and get it. So, I would pay attention. I would listen. I would ask all my questions and I would make sure I got everything while I was in class so that I didn’t have to go home and study.
I would say that was my habit all the way through college. I almost never studied. To me, if I didn’t get any class, I wasn’t getting it.
I mean obviously, there’s just some things you have to memorize, right? I would study those things, but in terms of actual concepts and understandings, my work habit was really paying good attention in class and asking questions and figuring it out after.
Do you feel like you had to cover up for not being able to read as quickly? Did you have habits or ways of deflecting so that wouldn’t come up?
100%. It really wasn’t an issue in grammar school. I would say it didn’t become an issue until high school, because I was more aware of it and I guess you’re not really tested as much in grammar school. I don’t really remember the anxiety of it, until maybe about middle school.
In middle school and high school, the teachers will have you read a section. I hated those days. Mostly because the way that I learned was by paying attention. But because I had anxiety about when it was going to be my turn to read, I would be counting and trying to predict what was gonna be my section to read and then practicing reading it in my mind, so that I could read it properly when it would be my go. Through that whole process, I didn’t hear any of what was read.
It was so terrifying. I didn’t like to read the text. I joke with my friends that I don’t think I read one book in high school. So any of the great standard literature that most people have to read in high school, I’ve never read.
I wrote papers based on the context of conversations that took place in class. I just had a really strong opinion on two or three things. It’s one of those things when you’re already perceived to be a good student, it’s easier to BS. But because I was doing those things I genuinely believe that the teachers were almost not paying much attention to my stuff.
In high school, you think you can fool everyone. I was doing it to survive, right? So, stressful. Not necessarily what I want – getting invigorated when you know that you did not read the text and you just got an A on your paper.
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Yes. So, how does that come up when you’re with your daughter? Who is the learner? Is she a similar student to you, and do you try to prevent that? How does that come up for you now?
She started at two and a half at a Spanish immersion school. So it has made learning for her completely different because she’s speaking a whole language that I don’t know.
Her dad also went to school for accounting. Though he’s not an accountant, he leans towards math, so we both assumed math would come naturally to her but it turned out, she actually enjoys reading.
I am conscious of it. So, I just pay more attention. She’s like me in that she’s amazing at context clues, so maybe it’s genetic. She’s 100% really strong at context clues, but since I’m aware of it, I push her on it.
I push her outside of the limits of what I know she can get through basic contexts, making sure that she’s actually understanding what she’s reading. She’s like right at that age now where she’s learning reading comprehension, where she’s having to read a story and deduce from that story.
So, I think that part of it has been fun for me to engage with her in that way – wanting to help her understand the text, and what to pull from it. Not just getting the right answers from the questions because you can, because the questions are always easy, right? Even as we get older, most of the time, I usually pick my answers from the questions, and that, I know she already knows how to do. So really I’m helping her to pick it from the text.
I’m not trained right, but it doesn’t appear that she has any learning disabilities. She’s extremely bright. One of the benefits that they say of learning a second language at a young age is that it makes them better at concentration, so they learn everything faster or better. So, I definitely feel like that contributes to her with what she’s learning now. Totally.
I bet it is. Yeah, Interesting. So, her reputation in school – is it similar? Like she’s a bright kid?
Yeah. She’s number one or two in the class. She’s reading well above her grade level right now because she’s in the second grade and I think she reads at a fourth-grade level.
She definitely doesn’t have the same anxiety as I have about it taking a long time. She’s usually trying to be the fastest. She 100% has a great reputation in terms of her teachers.
How does that feel for you? Are you on the lookout for anything? What messages do you try to give her at home? Similar to or different from what the school is giving her but how do you talk to her about her learning?
I tried to focus her on making sure she gave the most effort. Especially because she doesn’t have to put forth so much effort in order to do well. So I talk to her more about the effort and less about the grade and I try to help her want to learn whatever it is that they’re trying to teach her.
So, I don’t put much emphasis on getting 100% on her spelling. I put more emphasis on whether she actually knows the spelling words than what she got on the actual spelling. I’m pretty sure she gets good grades, but I ultimately want to make sure that she’s learning and gaining an appreciation for learning because I think it’s something that’s important even as an adult.
Definitely. Do you feel that your appreciation for learning has impacted you at work? How would you figure out how to do new things at work
100%. I think even despite the challenges that I had with learning, I have always had a love for learning, which I do also think I got from my dad. I think because I saw him doing it.
He is still reading and still learning right now. In his old age, he still sends me books, and he has found YouTube.
I 100% believe that my love for learning is the foundational element to my success because when you work in a corporate environment, systems are set up. Right? But you have to want to learn what’s happening behind the systems in order to improve the systems.
So, my communication curiosity has fueled my ability to create improvements, which naturally fuels success.
Interesting. That’s a great way of putting it. And last question. How does Olivia respond to the effort versus grades conversation, because that’s not always the message you get in school, right? Schools say, “10 out of 10 on your spelling test. Great job!” So, does she notice that difference, and how does she react to it?
She does. I feel like it only comes with spelling. Maybe it’s the one thing that she gets an actual grade on right now. At her age, they don’t really get grades. She is very much aware that she can get 100 on her spelling test and always give two extra words.
She’ll say, “I didn’t get 100.” Maybe she’ll get nine out of ten right, but she’ll get both the extra credits right.
I’ll say “you got the hardest word right, I don’t care about the 100. Look at this word do you know how to spell it?” And I’ll ask her to spell it and she’ll spell it. I’ll get her excited about the fact that she knows that she’s learned something.
Or I’ll point out to her if she didn’t get 100, “But you didn’t give it 100%, so how do you expect to get 100? Did you study? I didn’t study with you. When did you study? How would you get 100? You didn’t even study?” And really focus her attention on the effort that she put into it as opposed to the result of it.
Yeah. That makes a lot of sense. How does that conversation go? When she’s like, yeah, I didn’t really study, you know, what then?
She’s very logical. She says, “I didn’t study.” And I say, “so next time we’re going to study. Right?” I’m like, “do you wanna get 100? You’ve got to practice.”
I try to place most of the emphasis on practice. I try to infuse practice in everything and kind of give her the framework that everything is about practice because I feel like you can weave that into every aspect of your life.
So, I tried to put less emphasis on a particular goal and more emphasis on practicing and continuing to improve and change and evolve. I feel like that’s just gonna be good for her mental health, long term.
But it’s also gonna be better for her when she gets to the higher grades and the content is a little bit more difficult. Even now because they’re pushing her. She’s fortunate that she’s in a class where they push her.
They did their standardized testing recently, and she was frustrated that it took her longer than her peers, but they gave her a harder test because they were really pushing her limits that time to see where she is. She was frustrated with it like “I didn’t get to finish first.” I explained to her what they were doing, why it was good, and why it’s important to continue to push yourself and do harder and harder things, and she received it well.
That sounds awesome. Yeah, I think that this is a new thread that maybe we didn’t have as much as kids or wasn’t part of the bigger cultural conversation of focusing on effort or thinking of as an adult how are you are going to function in the world. I think these are new for this generation of parents and are important. Thank you so much for talking to me. Is there anything you’d like to add for parents who also have kids that school comes easy for them?
I think it’s about talking to them. I think in general for all kids it should be less about the grades. It shouldn’t be about the grades and should be more about the level of effort that they’re putting in and what they’re getting back out of it because I know a lot of people who make good grades that don’t have strong comprehension.
And what good is that, if you are getting an A but you haven’t really retained information? You’re just good at memorizing. I don’t want you to be my doctor or my lawyer.
So really focusing on whether or not they understand the information, and making that paramount. And, if that becomes paramount they know that they’re going to be here because they understand the content then it takes away the anxiety about the timing of it.
They’re gonna get the grades automatically, so for me, and for a smarter kid who is probably gonna get the good grades, I don’t want them to get the grades without having gained the knowledge like I was able to in English. I was able to get an excellent grade.
I actually want to look at my high school transcripts now because I feel like I got all As in English, and I really didn’t read any of those books. What good was that for me? Did I get the lessons? I guess because they talked about it, but it’s not the same without actually reading the text and understanding the symbolism. I was robbed because I didn’t actually read it. So it’s really about getting them more excited about the journey of the learning and less about the degree, and then it’ll make it easier to identify – even in the brighter students – if there are some learning challenges there.
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Yeah. That makes a lot of sense. I think that’ll be really useful for folks. Well, thanks so much for talking to me.
Nataki Williams has over 20 years of experience in global finance and accounting in both world-renowned organizations and a fast-growth startup. Currently, she is the senior vice president of finance for The Guardian US. In this leadership role, she oversees all financial functions for the US business. She was previously at Coach, USA, where she was vice president of finance. Earlier in her career, she spent seven years at Viacom in different finance roles and she also held positions at Loreal and Johnson & Johnson.
Nataki received her undergraduate Bachelor of Science degree in Finance from Montclair State University. She later went on to receive her Executive MBA from Fairleigh Dickinson University. She has a deep passion for education and community service. She is a founding board member and Treasurer of Ivy Hill Preparatory Charter school in Brooklyn.