Making History

2022 Nebraska Teacher of the Year first male person of color and ESL teacher to hold title

A knot in his stomach kept Lee Perez from sleeping in the weeks leading up to the big announcement. He knew his application for Teacher of the Year had been reviewed, and the announcement could come at any time.

When he walked down the hall at Alice Buffett Magnet Middle School in Omaha to find Commissioner of Education Dr. Matt Blomstedt and a camera crew waiting for him, Perez knew he had won the esteemed opportunity to speak out for teachers.

"It was a surprise. I felt really nervous, but it feels amazing," Perez said.

He's the first person to hold the Nebraska Teacher of the Year title who is male, a person of color and an English as a Second Language teacher.

"I'm very proud of that, and I will say this, I will not be the last," Perez said. "I hope to inspire other people of color to run for this award because Nebraska is more culturally diverse than a lot of people give it credit for."

Each of the four finalists for the award submitted exemplary applications. Mikayla Bruner of Westside Middle School in Omaha, Abby Jones of Gibbon High School in Gibbon, and Kim Pickering of Lincoln High School in Lincoln will be recognized as Award of Excellence winners.

Man on a mission

Perez said the TOY application requires a lot of time and effort, but it's worth it to get the opportunity to speak on behalf of educators.

"This was no ordinary application. You really had to have an objective and a mission and a path of what you want to do," he said. "My mission is to promote more culturally responsive teaching practices, get more ESL training for mainstream teachers in classrooms and to recruit and retain more teachers of color to keep up with our more cosmopolitan, diversified student body. I don't think we've had a lot of teachers of color in Nebraska."

Though he's proud to be where he is today, Perez said his path to becoming a teacher wasn't the smoothest.

"I hated school. I was not your ideal student. I skipped school a lot. I had bad grades. I barely graduated high school with like a 1.88 GPA," he said.

He fell in with the wrong crowd and even had a few minor run-ins with law enforcement, but his teachers were always there for him.

"I had one teacher of color that really, really helped me out in high school," Perez said. "My high school basketball coach and math teacher was really influential in my life."

Perez earned his Associate of Arts degree from Mid-Plains Community College in North Platte in 2003.

When it came time to pick a career, Perez considered becoming a police officer. He attended a career fair and heard an officer speak about the life of an officer. He walked out thinking that wasn't the job for him.

He went on to get his Bachelor of Science degree in education from the University of Nebraska at Omaha in 2007, and then added his ESL endorsement through a graduate program at Concordia University in Seward in 2019.

"It's insane that I'm a teacher now because I hated school. I just never wanted to go. I saw no value in education, but my teachers just never ever gave up on me," Perez said.

A kindness pandemic

Those teachers made Perez realize he could help other young people.

"I can really empathize with at-risk kids, kids that come from trauma, and kids that come from a history of racism and immigration issues, which my family have had, unfortunately," he said. "It really lets me make that personal connection with these students, their families and their communities."

As an ESL teacher, Perez works with students from all over the world who have relocated to the United States as immigrants or refugees. He has students from Somalia, Burma, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Thailand, Japan and many other countries.

The trauma those students have endured, coupled with the worldwide strain of the coronavirus pandemic the last two years, motivated Perez to stand up for kindness and acceptance in his TOY application essay.

"The last couple of years have been really tough on teachers, students, families and public schools in general," he said. "I've just seen a lot of things being politicized that shouldn't be, and a lot of divisiveness, a lot of racism, a lot of hate, a lot of prejudice and discrimination."

Instead, he wants to see kindness, acceptance of differences and civil conversations.

"Kindness should be our new pandemic. It should be spreading all over the world because right now things are tough, not just in education, but in every field," he said.

The pandemic has really affected his ESL students who come from marginalized communities with big socio-economic gaps. The mental weight of that has taken a toll on Perez as well as his students over the past 18 months.

"Often times I went to bed thinking, 'Are my kids safe? Are they OK? Are they able to get a meal at night?'" he said.

Trauma-informed, culturally responsive

In addition to increasing cultural awareness and the number of teachers of color in Nebraska, Perez wants to lead professional development on trauma-informed teaching so that educators can better understand where students are coming from after traumatic experiences like immigrating or enduring a pandemic.

As Teacher of the Year, Perez wants to push for required ESL training for all classroom teachers. Nebraska currently requires all prospective teachers to take courses in special education and human relations in order to earn their teacher certificate. He wants to add a course in ESL and culturally responsive teaching to that lineup.

His second goal is to recruit and retain more teachers of color by working with the legislature and the Department of Education to break down barriers that too often prevent teachers from starting and staying in the education field.

Perez served on a teacher advisory panel created by Commissioner Blomstedt to help the Department of Education understand and respond to what teachers needed during pandemic-induced remote learning.

The panel, in conjunction with representatives from districts across the state, asked for and received extra plan days and mental health breaks for teachers in some districts this fall, encouraged by Blomstedt.

Perez also testified on behalf of NSEA to the legislature's Education Committee last spring, pushing for more streamlined standards for remote instruction.

As Teacher of the Year, Perez will travel to Washington, D.C., to meet with top education officials and network with Teachers of the Year from other states.

"I'm really excited to network, exchange ideas and find out how we can advocate for the profession," he said.

He also will get a chance to go to space camp, attend professional development programs and speak at an assortment of events across the state. He is slated to address college students at the NSEA-Aspiring Educators conference on Nov. 13.

Membership matters

Perez said he wouldn't be Teacher of the Year without the support of NSEA and his fellow association members. He thanked NSEA leaders, governance, members and staff for giving him opportunities to get involved and create change through the association.

"They have done so much for me and they've given me so many opportunities to develop professionally as a teacher," Perez said. "I would not have been named Nebraska Teacher of the Year without the Nebraska State Education Association, and I am proud to say that."

He never used to believe in membership, but getting involved changed his perspective.

"I used to be kind of a naysayer, but I always tell people you can't complain about things if you don't do anything about it," he said. "People are always being critical, and I always say to them, 'What are you doing to change that? When's the last time you went to a school board meeting? When's the last time you called your senator?' Teacher voices are very powerful. We can have different opinions, but just be nice to each other. At the end of the day, I want what's best for the kids."