Every day here in Chatham County, teachers you know and love walk into public schools and excel at teaching their students. Last month, the Georgia Department of Education recognized one of our own as the top teacher in the entire state.
Many know him as Ernie Lee, the bow-tie and horn-rimmed glasses wearing former attorney, only recently of the teaching profession. After a ceremony in Atlanta, about 110,000 teachers across our state know Ernest William Lee II (as he goes by officially) as Georgia Teacher of the Year.
It was the first time ever that state officials bestowed the honor upon any teacher from Savannah-Chatham County.
“I am still shocked to learn I am the 2016 Georgia Teacher of the Year,” he wrote on his Facebook page after the announcement. “I have an incredible opportunity to travel the state and nation to promote education and teachers. There are some good things going on in our schools and I get to talk about it.”
And if you talk with Lee for any amount of time, you’ll discover what makes him a good teacher. In our interview, he laughed, he smiled, he asked questions and he was interested in my well-being. In short, he connects with people.
“I try to make positive interactions with anybody that I meet,” Lee says. “And in schools, I might be the only smiling face that a kid sees all day.”
So, he stands at his classroom door between classes, greeting his students and taking their mental temperature with caring questions. He says “hello” to students walking in the hall and admires their apparel. And when a new teacher comes to his school, he drops by and asks how he can help.
“The energy that I put out I get back 100 fold,” Lee says. “If I’m respectful and loving toward people, it comes back. I just want my kids to know that.”
He coaxes his hardest-edged students out of their shells with quiet understanding. He opens his classroom to safe and respectful discussions about race, admitting that he’ll “never know what it feels like to be black.” And he uses humor as a disarming weapon.
“Teaching is all about relationships,” Lee says. “If a student likes a teacher, then they’re really going to do well for the teacher.
And by all accounts, he’s gotten his students to do very well. Some unlikely graduates and scholarship award winners started out in high school as underperforming ninth graders pushed by Lee. The man himself is an unlikely teacher.
The last time that I saw much of him, he was an attorney, the on-staff legal ace for one of the city’s most high-profile employers, the Savannah College of Art and Design.
What a journey he’s had since he left the college! He became a real estate agent right before the recession. He declared bankruptcy and lost his mother, his house and his dog.
“It was a pretty hard year,” he understates. “I guess you could call it a mid-life crisis.”
At the time, a recruiter for the school system asked him to consider making a “forever difference” in young lives. At the time, he remembered how good it felt to teach and train people in prior jobs he had with state public health and revenue agencies.
And so he said yes.
“When everything kind of went upside down, I made the jump and I haven’t looked back,” Lee says.
He now teaches history and civics at Windsor Forest High School. He previously was named Teacher of the Year for his school and for Savannah-Chatham County Public Schools. He’ll now stand with teachers from all the states and territories in nominations for National Teacher of the Year.
As part of his official duties, he’ll represent teachers on the local school board, be recognized in the General Assembly, conduct workshops, speak to groups across the state, serve on various committees and… eagerly await returning to the classroom!
Congratulations, Ernie Lee.