What surprised Georgia’s 2016 Teacher of the Year, Ernie Lee the most when he went from being a lawyer to a teacher?
Blackboards. Or rather the fact that there weren’t any, only a whiteboard and markers. But then again, his success has never really been about tools and techniques. Teaching anywhere is not easy. Many don’t make it past the 5-year mark. But, Georgia chose Lee as its teacher of the year after his fifth year teaching at Windsor Forest High School.
Mr. Lee’s “secret” is good, old-fashioned hard work. He spends seven-plus hours each Saturday and Sunday planning his lessons and polishing his craft. He’s carried this over from his days as courtroom lawyer. “Just like the courtroom, you have to know your stuff when you walk into the classroom. Kids can sniff out a phony,” says Lee.
He also learned a thing or two about hard work from his late father, a WWII veteran who joined the Navy, leaving behind eight brothers and sisters in East Tennessee. His father, raised in poverty, remarked that once enlisted he was able to eat three square meals a day. The elder Mr. Lee and his wife worked hard to provide for their four children.
Ernie credits 21 cousins and a close family culture for making him consious of the importance of family, relationships, and giving back. He believes in the Golden Rule — which he tries to live by in and outside the classroom. Mr. Lee plans meticulously using different mediums and avoiding biased textbooks that he says “suck the life out of history.” He also uses humor to engage his students, standing at his door each day before class he “takes their temperature.”
For him, this means taking the time to greet students, ask how they’re doing — and most importantly gauge how they’re feeling that day. Ernie believes building relationships with students creates a bridge to learning. Students know he cares about them, and it is evident as we talk that he does.
Lee’s whole philosophy of teaching is based on relationships –- with students, parents, and administrators. It will also be his core message as he travels Georgia this year. He will take a one-year sabbatical to speak on behalf of students and teachers, as Georgia’s newest teacher of the year.
What else makes Lee tick? Mr. Lee consistently asks his students, what they want to do after high school. He frames it in the form of a simple question: What is your purpose and Why? His mantra to the kids is “Make life happen.”
Throughout our meeting, one theme bubbled to the surface repeatedly. It is simple, but worth remembering, especially when you’re in the trenches with teenagers day after day. We –- teachers and parents –- are the “adults” and it is up to us to set a positive and proactive tone for our homes and schools.
The fact, that Mr. Lee left law to teach makes for interesting headlines, but the truth is he always wanted to be a teacher and the verdict so far is he’s an outstanding one.
Written by Lauren Brantley, who is a full-time teacher at Savannah Arts Academy and part-time freelancer for the Isle of Hope News. To read more interviews with Savannah’s education community visit her blog:
If you know an interesting educator, who would make a great interview let her know. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.