‘Plenty of mistakes and incredible rewards’

Welcome to So Mini Ways, Yahoo Life’s parenting series on the joys and challenges of childrearing.

When you think of Jesse Williams’s career, his role as Dr. Jackson Avery on Grey’s Anatomy or his Broadway debut as Darren Lemming in Take Me Out may be top of mind. But one of the Chicago native’s most formative career moments didn’t take place on a screen or stage but inside of a classroom.

After graduating from Temple University, Williams taught English and African and American history in the Philadelphia public school system, a decision inspired by the “life-saving” impact school had on him as a child, which he describes as a “turning point in my existence.”

“The role that school can play in giving you access to turn your life in a certain direction and to believe in yourself has always stuck with me,” Williams tells Yahoo Life.

And while the high school classrooms of Philadelphia may be miles away from Broadway stages or Hollywood sets, Williams says there are many parallels between his previous work as a teacher and his current role as an entertainer.

“You’re holding the attention of a group of people that don’t necessarily want to be there and making them riveted by a story or narrative or pieces of information and making it applicable to them,” says Williams.

This skillset has also trickled over into his parenting. The dad of two, who shares 9-year-old Sadie and 7-year-old Maceo with ex-wife Aryn Drake-Lee, says his years as an educator taught him how to deliver information in an age-appropriate manner.

“Those are skills that apply directly to parenting and keeping people safe and informed and giving them useful information while being able to communicate ideas that are both applicable now or will be in the future,” says Williams.

Still, he says there are times he finds himself to be less stern in his approach to parenting than he anticipated.

“There are certainly things that I probably would have anticipated I’d be firmer on and clearer on that turned out to be a little bit more malleable,” he says, attributing a great deal of that to the innate ability of children to persuade.

“Young kids know how to try to manipulate,” says Williams, adding that this is a testament to their autonomy.

“You realize that you’re talking to, raising and creating a safe space for a whole individual. They’re not just sponges to be poured into. They have their own identity and preferences, and learning styles and senses of self and consciousness,” says the Only Murders in the Building star. Learning how to speak to his kids in a way they receive has been quite the learning curve, one he likens to a “tricky, ongoing classroom that I’m in at all times.” There have been “plenty of mistakes and incredible rewards” along the way.

And while his current day-to-day life looks quite different from his time as a teacher, he is still involved in making sure kids are able to access accurate educational information.

In March, Williams launched Homeschooled, an educational trivia app centered on Black culture and history. It’s an educational tool that he says is needed now more than ever, explaining that traditional history-based education and trivia often exclude contributions from marginalized communities.

“We made the decision to not exclude Black and brown people, and the working class, and women and LGBTQ members of our communities past and present,” says Williams.

Having two school-aged children helps keep his “finger on the pulse” of the real concerns facing young people, leveraging his ability to find new ways to speak to them rather than at them.

“It’s easy for us as parents to preach to people younger than us. But what sets in? What is effective? And what isn’t?” says Williams. “That is ever-changing, so you have to stay fresh.”

And as his own kids gear up for another year of school, Williams has partnered with Crest and Oral-B to help “close America’s smile gap” this back-to-school season, explaining that oral health is especially important for “young kids and students.”

“Having confidence in their appearance and their smile and the quality of their teeth, that’s hugely impactful,” says Williams. “That sense of self confidence has a direct impact on your mental [and] physical health, as well as your academic performance and social confidence.”

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