Despite working with dozens of students and aiding her colleagues at Milton Elementary School, Justin Lee never imagined she’d be named the school’s Outstanding Teacher.
“Shocked is an understatement,” the speech language pathologist said of receiving the honor. “It just never occurred to me.”
Cheryl King, the longtime kindergarten teacher who nominated Lee for the annual recognition, wasn’t surprised to watch the modest Lee sink lower into her seat as it became clear Principal Wendy Savery was talking about her during the August assembly.
“She doesn’t expect any recognition for doing what she does,” King said. “Some people just go about their work [with] a nice work ethic and really want what’s best for kids … She was appreciative of the honor but was surprised people would nominate her.”
In her 12th year in Milton, Lee feels more connected with the classroom than ever. While she also meets solo with several students who have individual, varying language learning challenges, this year she’s also developed lessons with classroom teachers that meet all students’ needs.
“To be in the classroom gives me such a richer understanding, and it really helps me to figure out how I can support the students I need to support,” she said.
That so-called co-teaching setup has multiple positive side effects, Lee said: All students benefit from the extra instruction, and it keeps all kids in the classroom.
“If it’s pull-out instruction, they’re missing something that their peers are having access to,” Lee said.
Of course, some students need a quiet space to work on specific language skills. Lee provides that, too. If a student can’t articulate the hard “K” sound, he or she might visit Lee’s office four times a week for 15-minute appointments to practice.
Lee frequently works with students on the autism spectrum or who otherwise struggle with expected social communication. Addressing those non-academic concerns builds the foundation for a student’s success in school and in life, she said.
“If a student is struggling with comprehension when they’re communicating, they’re certainly going to have difficulty with reading comprehension,” Lee explained.
King said Lee is one of the district’s experts on the kaleidoscope of differences students have in the classroom.
“All of us will, at some point, have children who were diagnosed on the spectrum,” King said.
Two years ago, Lee and other special educators led a summer training course for teachers about reaching students with autism. The effort resulted in PowerPoint documents and other written resources that teachers can consult when needed. And Lee is available to help, too, King said.
For example, a teacher might come to Lee because his class is starting a group project, which could be a challenging assignment for a student. Lee would lead a lesson about what’s expected when you work in small groups – without singling out that student who struggles.
Such actions prevent students with special needs from feeling marginalized, Lee said.
King said Lee is adept with technology, and together, the two have co-produced videos and photo stories to teach King’s young students life lessons, like how to manage stress.
Before a trip to a pumpkin patch last year, Lee and King used Microsoft Photo Story to help the young students wrap their minds around the different day.
“Some kids need visual schedules,” King said. “[Lee] created the icons to put on a storyboard so the kids know what the day will look like to ease anxiety.”
That proves to King that Lee sees the whole picture when it comes to students’ needs.
“It’s not just communication; it’s what’s best for kids … She brings that perspective,” King said. “She incorporates families [and the] school community. She has a way of knowing how to make it right for kids.”
Lee’s personality adds to her success: She exudes calmness, and that helps alleviate stressful situations, King said.
In Lee’s opinion, she’s just doing her job.
“We want our kids to be able to get jobs and go onto college, and those skills are really important,” she said.