While the Muscogee Educational Excellence Foundation recognized the 56 nominees for the Muscogee County School District 2017 Teacher of the Year award during Monday’s breakfast in the Columbus Convention & Trade Center, the 2016 Georgia Teacher of the Year told the crowd about a different kind of recognition in education.
Ernie Lee, 57, an International Baccalaureate history and American government teacher at Windsor Forest High School in Savannah, said he stands in the doorway of his classroom before every period to greet each of his students by name.
“No one gets into my classroom without me speaking to them,” he said. “No one slides under the radar. This is really all about building those relationships. … It’s so important to get to know my students because my job is to challenge them and push them a little bit harder, a little bit further.”
The importance of recognition extends to the national conversation about education. Lee cited a study that says only 8 percent of cable news coverage about education includes interviews with educators.
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“Folks, people are telling our stories for us,” he said, “and they’re not getting it right. My challenge for you as a professional, as an educator, is to start talking about the good things that are going on in your classroom, in your school and in your district. We’re doing some incredible work out there. I have seen it. I’ve experienced it. And people are talking trash about us, and they don’t know what they’re talking about.”
Lee’s journey is one of those good stories – and his starts with a background that sounds like a country music song.
He was a corporate lawyer for more than 20 years and then an in-house lawyer at a college in Savannah. In 2006, he ventured into real estate, borrowed money and opened an office. After doing well that first year, his business sank with the Great Recession and he filed for bankruptcy that third year. In a span of about 18 months, he also lost his house, his car’s engine blew out, leaving him with a “beat-up” pickup truck, and his mother and his dog died.
As he searched his soul at age 50 in 2010, Lee wondered what he had done to make a lasting and positive impact on his community and in the lives of others. Then a friend reminded him, “You have always talked about teaching. What is holding you back?”
So he began working as a substitute teacher – “God bless our substitutes,” he said -- and started pursuing his teaching certification through an alternative program for those already with college degrees.
“I got into that classroom, and I started to build relationships with those kids – even as a substitute,” he said.
Those relationships became the basis of his classroom management. Even when Lee became a full-time teacher, colleagues would ask him, “Why don’t you have any discipline problems?”
His response: “I get all the good kids, right? You don’t get good kids; you make good kids.”
For example, when he sees a student misbehaving, he gives them a look that says, “You’re going to what?” And the student responds with a, “Ooh, my bad, Mr. Lee.” And he replies, “It’s OK. I’m not getting on to you. Just shape up. We’ve got stuff to do.”
Lee summed up his method this way: “I’m friendly; I’m not their friend. … We can all have good kids by building those relationships.”
A personal example Lee shared is his story about a student named Bubba, a ninth-grader who was old enough to be a 12th-grader.
Bubba either skipped class or was perpetually late. One day, Lee exclaimed to him, “Bubba! You were almost on time! Give me a high five!”
Bubba did and looked at Lee like he was crazy.
Instead of chastising Bubba for forgetting his book, Lee gave him one to borrow, same with paper and pencil.
The next day, Bubba was on time to Lee’s class, and this teacher started taking time to get to know this wayward students. Lee asked him, “What are your plans for when you graduate,” emphasizing the “when” and not using an “if” in that question.
Bubba responded with a look that said, “Why do you care?”
Lee replied, “I care because, No. 1, you fooled every teacher in this school but me. I know you’re smart. I know you can do this work. I care because I want to see you graduate. I teach because I care.”
Bubba continued to be on time to Lee’s class, but he also continued to get suspended. Lee took Bubba’s class work to him in the in-school suspension room and went over it with him.
One day, the school secretary called Lee and asked him to send Bubba to the office so the battery on his ankle monitor could be changed. The secretary knew Bubba could be found in Lee’s class because that was the only one he attended.
Several weeks later, Bubba didn’t show up for Lee’s class. Lee learned that Bubba was pulled out of school for “doing something bad” off campus.
So why did Lee tell these inspiring teachers this depressing story?
“It’s not a depressing story,” Lee told them. “For six weeks, this student chose to come to my government class every day. He wasn’t going to anything else. Why did he do that? Because I cared about him. Because I talked to him.”
The Savannah Morning News reported, Lee said, that Bubba was among 15 gang members charged in connection with a murder.
“My heart broke,” Lee said. “What would have happened if maybe somebody had gotten to Bubba earlier and showed that, ‘Bubba, you’re valuable. You are smart.’ … What if we had gotten to him earlier and said, ‘Bubba, you are worthy, and I want to see you do well.’
“I don’t know if it would have changed it or not. But that is the power of teaching.”