The home economics classroom still existed at Thomas Hunter Middle School, but was being used as a special education classroom. Williams recruited a crew of former students to give it a refresh, including removing stickers that had been on the cabinet doors since 2005.
Michelle Williams has taught sixth-grade math and reading at Thomas Hunter Middle School for 14 years, but she’s always dreamed of introducing her students to something more. Mathews Country, Virginia, the coastal region where her school is located, has a population of just over 8,000 people and employment opportunities are limited. “There is no industry,” Williams says. In decades past local fishermen brought in blue crab off the Chesapeake Bay, but overfishing and pollution have made this opportunity all but disappear. Now, the choices for graduating seniors are mostly to become a nurse, a teacher, or a pilot, or join the military. “That’s what it is when you live off the beaten path,” Williams says.
A dedicated teacher who got her degree and certification at the local community college in her early 30s after raising a family, Williams has a broader vision for her students. “You don’t know that you’re going to be interested in a particular field if you’ve never seen it or been exposed to it,” she says. “You might not realize that you want to be a chef or open a restaurant, or be a fashion designer or a product designer.” Even if none of those options appeal to you, Williams believes her students should have an understanding of the basic aspects of living a healthy, productive life including nutrition, personal finance, and creative expression. That’s why she’s always wanted to teach home economics, but in order to do so, she first had to revive a program that had all but disappeared in Mathews County.
Home economics as a discipline was developed in the early 1900s and its original aim was to bring science and efficiency to managing a household. For decades, it was a way for women to access science at the secondary and college level. From the post-World War II era through the late 1970s, though, it became proscriptive; girls and young women should learn to keep house in order to please a husband. In middle and high school, boys took woodshop and girls took home ec. Rebranded as Family and Consumer Sciences in the 1990s and offered to boys and girls alike, the curriculum included a basic introduction to sewing, cooking and nutrition, human development, personal and family finances, and consumer awareness.
But then, in the early 2000s, trends in education shifted toward achievement on standardized tests and many school districts did away with home ec entirely. By 2012 only 3.5 million students were enrolled in home economics classes nationwide, a decrease of 38% over the prior decade.
Michelle Williams had always dreamed of teaching home economics, now known as Family and Consumer Science. After years of hard work that involved getting a new teaching credential from the state of Virginia and convincing the school board to see her vision, she is offering the class this fall.
Seizing the moment
Is now the moment to bring home ec back? And if so, what would that take?
Michelle Williams believes the time is right. She says the pandemic highlighted the importance of cooking and sewing skills. “I really think that this was a good outcome because it showed us where we’re lacking as a community. It showed us what we lost when we discontinued these programs.” Her determination and ability to build community support helped her to convince Mathews County to agree.
An avid home cook and sewist, Williams first asked about becoming a home economics teacher when she was studying for her teaching degree at the local community college, but the advisor rolled their eyes and said that Virginia was doing away with those programs. Williams, who has been sewing since she was six years old and grew up cooking with her mother and grandmother, held onto her desire to teach these skills. “I’m not trained as far as college training in either of those two things, but I’m 52 years old,” she says, “and I have a lot of life experience under my belt.”
She found out that Thomas Hunter Middle School offered Family and Consumer Science classes until 2005 when the school system phased out the program. “I’ve been told by a school board member they discontinued the program due to lack of children electing to take the course,” Williams says. “I’ve heard elsewhere that they just kind of absorbed her salary into the budget because Family and Consumer Science is an expensive startup and upkeep. I’m not sure which of those, or a combination of the two, might be the case.”
A few years ago, during her annual review, Williams told her principal she was feeling burned out and mentioned her home ec idea. She spoke informally about it to the superintendent as well. Then Covid hit and Williams, like many teachers, was at a breaking point, ready to quit teaching for good. She proposed a plan to her principal: she would figure out what it would take to earn a Family and Consumer Science teaching credential so that if the opportunity arose to reinstate the program, she’d be prepared. A year later, two teachers in the Career and Technology Education department left and Williams finally had her opportunity.
Nuts and bolts
Getting a teaching endorsement from the State of Virginia wasn’t terribly difficult. Williams discovered that her life and business experience qualified her to take the state teaching exam without additional coursework. She ordered a set of flashcards and took online practice tests. In March 2022 she sat for the test and passed. “Once I passed the test, then the ball had to start rolling in order to get school board approval,” she says. As part of that process, she needed to demonstrate student support for the new offering.
“I’m very open with my students. They knew I make homemade purses and bags and wallets, and they’d see me bring things in to deliver to people that have bought them. During my planning period, I’d sit and I’d work on English paper piecing or hand work on a bag or whatever, so they’d seen me doing these things,” she says.
“They’d strike up a conversation, Hey, can you teach me how to do that? And I said, Well, now that you ask, I would love to teach you how to do that!”
The School Board approved her proposal (she found out later that it inspired a round of applause) and enrollment opened. The Mathews Country district is sparsely populated and there are less than 200 students in grades 6-8. The Family and Consumer Sciences course will have every sixth grader as an introductory experience and to Williams’ delight, 49 of the seventh and eighth graders chose it as their elective this fall.
Over the summer, she began collecting supplies and equipment. She’s gotten 2,000 yards of donated fabrics and is hoping to apply for a local grant to cover the cost of sewing machines. She recruited a crew of former students to paint and reorganize the existing home economics classroom which had, until recently, been occupied by a special education class. “It was clean, but the paint and the cabinetry were old and they didn’t use the kitchen,” Williams said, “They’d just left the stickers that were there for the previous teacher 18 years ago.” The first day of class was August 20.
Williams says the school administration’s support has bolstered her confidence that she can successfully revive this program after its nearly two-decade hiatus. “The superintendent told me that this is the focus for this year. To me, that’s a staggering thought. She told me, Michelle, you’ll have what you need. We’ll make sure you get what you need.”
Abby co-founded Craft Industry Alliance and now serves as its president. She’s a sewing pattern designer, teacher, and journalist. She’s dedicated to creating an outstanding trade association for the crafts industry. Abby lives in Wellesley, Massachusetts.