Credit: Photo: Jennifer Causey

The best types of teachers are those who inspire. They lead by example and they instill in their students a desire to better themselves. Even decades later, their students can still recall instances where those teachers influenced who they became as adults.

Julie Williams of Huntsville, Alabama, is one of those teachers.

Credit: Julie Williams


First and foremost, Julie Williams can teach her students about facing and overcoming adversity. Diagnosed with breast cancer in 2016, Julie underwent successful surgery and radiation treatment. She then used that adversity and turned it into a teaching moment. When listening to speakers at her hospital's cancer survivors group, she came to understand the importance of diet as it relates to recovery.

"I'm a believer that those dark green, leafy veggies really do make a difference," Julie says. She also started taking steps to cut sugar out of her diet after a speaker talked about the impact sugar can have on the body.

So Julie took what she learned and started more consistently implementing it into her day-to-day. The Cooking Light Diet helped along the way (more on that later), but the great thing about Julie is that she was concerned with her health prior to her diagnosis and remission. Not because she's always been a health nut, but because Julie wanted to lead her students by example.

Credit: Julie Williams

"How would you use your platform to change things?"

In 2013, before her cancer diagnosis and defeat were even a forethought, the then-AP Language teacher at Huntsville High School was named Teacher Of The Year for Huntsville city schools. And one of the questions in the application she filled out really resonated with Julie.

"The last question was 'If you were named TOY, how would you use your platform to change things?'" Julie says. "And I remembered saying I think teachers should be healthier. It's very clear we as teachers aren't taking care of ourselves. We could set better examples."

Even back then, before cancer had emphasized the importance of a healthier diet, Julie felt strongly that teachers could and should mold students through more than what school board-approved curriculum offered. So that's exactly what she started doing.

The Not-Yoga Club

Julie can teach her students a lot about resilience and conviction. Aspiring to use her platform as a teacher to impart the importance of health and movement onto her students in a way that would hopefully be both cathartic and fun, Julie set out with a plan. Equipped with the necessary certifications, she started a yoga club at school. It was (and still is) open to any student interested. Each Thursday, the class meets from 11:30am to 12pm in the carpeted lobby of the school auditorium. Attendance ranges between three and fifteen students, and Julie loves that they're participating in an activity that's making them feel better and teaching them how to take better care of themselves.

The club wasn't without controversy, though. As a lifelong southerner, I can personally attest that change in the South is sometimes slow to happen and even slower to be accepted. And the Alabama Department of Education frowned upon yoga being taught in Alabama schools. So Julie's yoga club was in jeopardy.

But if you've learned anything about Julie from this post so far, it should be that she's not the type of teacher to be cowed from helping her students learn, grow, and better themselves. Undeterred, she renamed her club the Not-Yoga Club, and any student interested in learning about and practicing yoga can still find her every Tuesday during the school year, in the carpeted lobby of the school auditorium, teaching not-yoga.

Credit: Julie Williams

The Importance of Switching Gears

Another important lesson Julie's students can take from her is to pursue your passions, no matter your circumstances. The 2013 Huntsville Teacher Of The Year award is proof enough of that, because at 39, Julie still had no idea she'd ever even teach. It wasn't until a trip to Barnes & Noble, standing in front of a summer reading rack, that she experienced an epiphany of sorts thanks to one of her former teachers.

"I had a teacher, Mary Thigpen, who was talking to us one day about a certain word in one of our books, about how some people in the community enunciated it a certain way. And she was telling us not to assume someone is ignorant and that you know more than they do just because of how they say a word," Julie says. "She was giving us a lesson in human dignity and language. And I remembered that 35 years later." And as Julie stood in Barnes & Noble looking at the literature she loved, she realized she wanted to do something to get back around it and imbue that passion onto others. Ergo, at a point in her life when most people are already wholly established in their careers, Julie started from scratch and became a teacher.

"I realized how important it is to switch gears once in a while," Julie says. "It keeps me excited about what I'm doing."

And that willingness to switch gears is also what led Julie to start meal planning with the Cooking Light Diet.

Credit: Julie Williams

"Cooking has become almost holistic"

A little over a year ago, Julie discovered the Cooking Light Diet by accident. She'd been using the Real Simple meal-planning tool when she received an email stating it had been discontinued. The email also recommended she try the Cooking Light Diet, so Julie switched gears, subscribed, and started planning her weekly meals with the service.

"Trips to the grocery are little bit more expensive," Julie says, "but at the same time I know I'm shopping the perimeter of the store, my cart is full of fresh vegetables, and I'm getting natural flavors that are keeping my stomach and brain satisfied."

Being an obsessively organized planner (in her own words, it's "disgusting" how meticulous her years of complied cooking binders are), Cooking Light Diet was able to marry Julie's instinct to plan with her desire to be healthy without obsessing over it. She'll plan her week's meals out and then write them all down in grid format so she can have that visualization attached to her fridge. And she's enjoyed finding that "95% of the time when I want to plug in calorie counts on my MyFitnessPal app", the recipes are already there.

Credit: Julie Williams

Julie and her husband Richard have also discovered many new favorite recipes using the service, from Moroccan Butternut Squash and Chickpea Stew to Strawberry Cream Cheese Waffles. And no matter how busy she gets, she's embraced what she calls an "almost holistic" catharsis in preparing the meals. It's a satisfying step away from the chaos of her classes.

Credit: Photo: Randy Mayor

Teaching Through Sharing

Even though Julie now teaches AP English to 160 students, her penchant for wanting to impact lives doesn't stop when she leaves the classroom. After all, she wanted us to share her story in the hopes that other people out there looking to change the way they eat and meal plan might find this helpful.

And really, that's what the teachers we remember do. The Mary Thigpens of the world, if you will. They constantly and selflessly challenge us to think about the bigger pictures, the deeper meanings, and the greater goods. And they do whatever they can to help us learn and grow. So that we can overcome adversity. So that we can recognize that sometimes the best thing we can do is switch gears. Or, so that we can use our platforms to change the world—one yoga mat at a time.

Cheers to you, Julie.

Credit: Julie Williams

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