Brooke Lee: Award-Winning Teacher Continues to Inspire
For most children, the novel coronavirus pandemic forced an abrupt transition from classroom to remote learning. This change left teachers quickly updating teaching methods and modifying lesson plans. One such educator, Brooke Lee with Claremore Public Schools, met this challenge with an award-winning attitude. Maybe that’s because she is an official award-winner who was presented with a major teaching award only a few short months ago. We originally reached out to Lee about the exciting national recognition she received when she was presented with the Milken Teaching Award. During our interview process, coronavirus occurred. As a result, we were also able to gather her thoughts on teaching during the pandemic and how this transition might affect education in the future.
Her passion for teaching is readily apparent. Colleagues and students knew it, but how others outside of Claremore caught wind of it is still a mystery. The Milken Family Foundation has been surprising outstanding teachers across the nation since 1987 with fanfare, hoopla and an unrestricted check for $25,000! The Milken Teaching Award winners are recognized for the pivotal role that they play in their profession and community. How was Lee selected? Unlike most teacher recognition programs, one cannot be nominated or apply. The confidential selection process recognizes teachers who are early to mid-career teachers who will continue to grow and influence the teaching profession. The momentum of receiving this award was impactful and exciting for the entire school – especially for Lee, who will be known as a Milken Teaching Award winner for life.
TK: Tell us about yourself:
Lee: I’m originally from Broken Arrow. I attended Broken Arrow public schools and graduated from there. I now live in Verdigris with my husband and children. I have been married for 14.5 years and we have two boys (ages 13 and 12).
TK: What inspired you to pursue a career in teaching?
Lee: During my senior year of high school, I was a peer tutor in a classroom for students with special needs and it was during that class I decided I wanted to be a teacher. I just finished my sixth year of teaching. I taught sixth grade Language Arts for five years and just wrapped up my first-year teaching eighth grade Language Arts.
TK: Given the coronavirus pandemic, public education abruptly changed for students. Because of this, what thoughts do you have about public schools and their ability to pivot into online education?
Lee: School districts and educators have shown their resilience, flexibility, professionalism and determination during this transition to online education. It is inspiring to see how educators have come together to help one another and educate themselves as to what online platforms and resources could be used to best educate their kids during this time. From the moment we received the news that this is how learning would take place for the remainder of the year, I have seen educators in my building, district, state and country band together to come up with a plan.
Of course, there have been some bumps along the way and not everything has gone perfectly. There have been frustrating times and rewarding times but that is what learning is all about. I am proud to be a teacher and proud of our profession. We love our kids and what we do, and I think that has shown during this transition.
TK: How did you adjust your teaching style and content delivery once education transitioned online?
Lee: I have a similar style, it just looks different. I made sure the project we were working on was engaging, and the students were able to interact with one another online. I made sure to have multiple avenues of communication. I recorded myself in weekly videos to further explain assignments. I also provided numerous examples to my students so they could see what was expected. My communication with parents and my students increased dramatically.
TK: What are your thoughts and suggestions for parents moving forward if online curriculum continues?
Lee: Find a routine that works for you and your family and give yourself grace. Please do not hesitate to reach out to your teachers. Communication is key during this time. Identify a separate learning space from the rest of your home space. If you have multiple people in your house accessing the internet, try to organize a schedule where not everyone is using the bandwidth at the same time. Make sure you go outside and give yourself brain breaks, and try to limit the additional screen time not related to school.
TK: How do you think this pandemic will impact kids and academics/learning in the future?
Lee: I think teachers will incorporate technology more. Many teachers have learned they have all of these new resources that they actually enjoy using, which is a big positive during this pandemic. I think that school districts will strive to become one-to-one with technology. I know the desire is always there for districts to be one-to-one, but this pandemic has made it apparent how important it is for all districts to transition to this method. I believe communication between teachers and parents will be different and for the better. I think it has forced students to become more responsible for their learning and realize how much they took school for granted. I think they will have a greater appreciation for school and their relationships with people.
TK: What have you been surprised by?
Lee: I asked my students what they missed about school. Their responses were eye-opening for me. Some of the many responses of what they missed included: learning with other people, structure the school day brings to their lives, having a teacher to talk with and learn from face-to-face, interaction with friends and even people they weren’t friends with, but mostly they miss all their teachers. A huge part of academics is the relationships and trust you build with your students.
TK: How has this has affected your daily life?
Lee: The first two weeks were definitely challenging. The days were pretty chaotic and very busy – busier than a normal school day. Finding the balance between being a teacher working from home, helping my own children with their schooling, and being a graduate student myself was difficult. I found that I have to give myself grace and learn to be okay with not having the structure I would like for my day and for my own children.
TK: What do you consider will result from this pandemic?
Lee: I just want to point out a few of the positives that have come as a result of this pandemic. The increase in communication between parents and teachers was wonderful and hopefully becomes the new normal. The heart of teachers who have spent countless hours learning and creating lessons in ways they may have never done, if not forced to, is inspiring. Online learning has allowed teachers to see a different side of our students, which has been so enjoyable. The students who were normally very quiet and reserved came out of their shells, and I was able to see more of their personalities. I do, however, hope it ends soon because I am ready to get back to our traditional format. I, too, miss our daily in-person interactions with students and the collaboration with our colleagues.
TK: Moving on from the pandemic, let’s visit about your award. What was it like to be surprised with this national recognition?
Lee: Not many people have a time in their life where they are completely surprised by something. Being surprised with an award of this magnitude was an incredible feeling but also very surreal. I had so many emotions running through me all at the same time. I was completely shocked, surprised, excited, happy, overwhelmed, honored, confused, proud. I’ve never experienced anything like it.
I found out about the award like everyone else. We were having an assembly at school, and I knew that Governor Stitt and State Superintendent Hofmeister were going to be attending our assembly and visiting my classroom, along with a couple others, to observe some of the new initiatives we have implemented in our building. During the assembly, Superintendent Hofmeister introduced a special guest — Dr. Jane Foley. She introduced herself and told us what the Milken Award is. Dr. Foley then informed us that someone at our school had won this award. Shortly after she described the award, Governor Stitt announced that I was the winner. That is how I found out what the award is and that I was the recipient.
TK: How do you describe your teaching philosophy?
Lee: This is always a challenging question for me to answer. I feel like my philosophy changes each year that I teach and grow as an educator. If I had to sum it up, I would say my philosophy of teaching consists of a few main things. First, I believe that building relationships with your students has a great impact on the success you have as a teacher and the success they have as students. Every student deserves to have an adult in their life who believes in them, sees their potential, and cares. This may be the greatest thing we can do as teachers. Secondly, I believe that it is my job to figure out how my students learn best and then build engaging lessons that accommodate all learning styles. Third, I believe it is my responsibility to prepare my students to grow as individuals as much as it is my responsibility to prepare them for academic growth.
TK: How do you plan to use the $25,000 you won?
Lee: Prior to Covid-19, we had planned to use some of the money to travel to Africa this summer. This is still the plan, but it has been postponed. Donna Gradel, 2018 Teacher of the Year (TOY) and a top four finalists for national TOY, and I are planning to go over to Kenya and work with some schools. I’d like to take my husband and two boys with us. I want my boys to experience how some people in this world live and to show them what it means to be a part of something bigger than yourself. It will be an eye-opening and life changing experience for them; it will be life-changing for all of us. I’m not sure how my husband and I will decide to use the rest (of the money). We have talked about so many things we would like to do but the reality is we will probably just put it in savings or put it towards our home loan.
TK: Wrap-up: What else would you like to mention?
Lee: There are so many people who have been a part of this journey. My husband, kids, parents, grandparents, friends, administrators, co-workers and students have all played a part in developing me into the teacher I’ve become. It may have come in the form of support, kind words, motivation, collaboration, help in my classroom and through distance-learning, advice, or a pick-me-up when feeling defeated. When I sit and evaluate all the ways countless people have shaped me into the person and educator I am now, the list is endless. I am so thankful for all of them.
I am eternally grateful for the Milken Foundation. It is remarkable to me that Lowell Milken would be so generous with his money. His support for teachers and education is inspiring.