Troy Williams is the kind of teacher whose students can ask him anything. And as the director of bands for Wilton Public Schools, Williams knew his students would have questions on day one. He’s been a teacher for a decade and happens to be a youthful looking Black man with a piercing in each ear lobe.
Williams grew up in Bridgeport, which is less than 25 minutes away from Wilton. Though both cities are in Fairfield County, he said they might as well be on different planets. Or at least that’s what he anticipated that his students might think.
As they stared wide-eyed at him during the first day of school four years ago, he told them: “Ask me all the questions you want to ask.”
“I’d rather they hear it from me and get rid of any negative stereotypes,” he added.
The students didn’t disappoint. Had he been in a gang? No. Have you ever shot anyone? No. Have you ever been to jail? No. Was he raised by a single mom? No. Did he have multiple children with different women? No. In fact, Williams’ background couldn’t be more traditional.
He was born and raised in a two-parent home in Bridgeport with his three brothers. His grandmother was his pre-kindergarten teacher and singing in the Bridgeport Boys Choir was his mother’s prerequisite for playing basketball.
He fell in love with band and turned down a full scholarship to Fairfield College Preparatory School because they didn’t have a music program as robust as Bridgeport’s Central High School’s program. He counts his time at Central as among the best four years of his life and credits that time with shaping the trajectory of his career toward education.
“When it came to marching band, that was my life,” he recalled.
As one of the few Black teachers in a school district that is predominately White, he expected that students might be operating with misconceptions and stereotypes. But he said his philosophy was simple: reach them to teach them. Williams said the sooner he answered their questions, and helped them discover what they had in common, the sooner he could get down to sharing his passion for music.
He said his transparency has earned him not only the respect of Wilton’s students but also their trust. Students, whether in band or not, drop by to talk to him about everything from academics to anime.
In addition to seeking his counsel, they also wanted to be his intern. Wilton High School students have the opportunity to go on an internship for about a month at the end of their senior year. Williams said he had students lining up to be interns with him because of the connection they have with him.
He spent so much time with his own mentor, Joseph DeGroate, the longtime band director for Central High School, that it influenced his path to becoming a music teacher and band director.
Williams said that he wants students to learn early that the thing they’re passionate about – in his case, it was music – can become their profession.
“I tell them, ‘You’re going to work half your life and the last thing you want is to be miserable every day,’” he said. “If you have the chance to choose what you’re going to do, do it.”
Though Williams is doing what he loves as a music teacher and band director, he said leaving Bridgeport Public Schools (BPS) for Wilton was a difficult decision. He came up through BPS and got all of his degrees from the University of Bridgeport.
He also started his teaching career with BPS, even getting to teach at a school he once attended, High Horizons Magnet School. Williams still maintains close ties with DeGroate and other mentors like 2019 Connecticut Teacher of the Year Sheena Graham, and his former students,
Williams said choosing to accept a position with a school system with more resources that didn’t serve many students who looked like him felt like he was betraying his roots. But his mentors and students didn’t see it that way at all.
“I felt like a traitor to the city – like I was giving up on the kids,” he recalled. “I felt horrible. Leaving Bridgeport was one of the toughest decisions I’ve made in my entire life. But Sheena Graham, whom I’ve known since I was four, and Joseph DeGroate and other colleagues, they all told me, ‘You have to do what’s best for you.’”
Williams said he ultimately chose Wilton because he wanted a new challenge as an educator.
“I felt like I maxed out as an educator,” he said. “I felt like I had hit a pinnacle.”
At Wilton he now directs the marching band, two jazz bands, three ensembles and created two new courses and he said he feels like he’s growing again. Because of the aforementioned resources, he said the students he works with now are a bit more skilled in things like sight reading music. That means he can introduce them to more music of greater difficulty. That means he can push a marching band, that is currently not competitive, toward competition.
“I have to plan more,” he said. “It’s literally pushing me.”
But that doesn’t mean he’s given up on Bridgeport. The city still remains his home and he continues to be a strong advocate for making sure that kids from the state’s largest city get equitable opportunities. He also wants them to take advantage of new and existing opportunities like the chance to attend Housatonic Community College in Bridgeport for free.
While he doesn’t know if his career will ever bring him back to BPS, he said he could see it happening some day. One thing he’d like to see, post-pandemic, is some type of musical exchange between students in Bridgeport and Wilton.
If I can bring bands in I’d love to have Bridgeport kids visit and be that bridge. My Wilton students are so curious about what’s going on in the city; Bridgeport kids are curious about the suburbs. I would love to do that.
Williams has quite a bit of experience in bringing musicians from diverse backgrounds together. He’s currently the assistant director of The Saints Brigade Drum and Bugle Corps of Port Chester in New York, an all brass and percussion competition marching band made up of more than 100 young musicians from New York and Connecticut.
Prior to working with the Saints Brigade, Williams played percussion for the Westchester Brassmen Drum and Bugle Corps. He said bugle corps musicians participate in competitions hosted by Drum Corps International and Drum Corps Associates, which govern junior and senior drum and bugle corps respectively.
Drum and bugle corps musicians travel the world to perform. Saints Brigade members performed in London in 2020 and would have gone to Italy and Paris if not for the global pandemic. Being able to do those things are all on his radar for the future but first he’s got to get his Wilton students through band camp.
“It’s going to be a task, but I’m excited for it,” Williams said. “I get up every day to teach music. I love what I do so you won’t get any complaints from me.”