Alumni across the region, country, and world have been drawing on their own unique skills and passions throughout the COVID-19 pandemic to not only overcome challenges, but to also make a positive difference. Class of 2003 alum Jonte Lee is one of these many impactful members of our Lion Pride.
Lee has achieved a successful career focused around helping others receive quality educations and brighter futures. He currently teaches in Washington, D.C., at Calvin Coolidge High School.
When his school physically closed because of COVID-19, Lee found a new way to keep his students excited to still learn. He not only continued instructing virtually; he converted his own home kitchen into a chemistry lab to demonstrate class material and effectively engage students.
The accomplishments of Lee did not go unnoticed. On May 4, National Teacher Day, he was featured on ABC’s Good Morning America and interviewed by fellow alum Robin Roberts, who surprised him with a $20,000 grant for his school from DonorsChoose.
Since then his dedication to his students’ education has been honored by additional outlets—including on Episode 2 of Amazon Prime Video’s Regular Heroes, narrated by Kevin Hart—as an example of how one person can make an impact on many during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Southeastern Magazine got in touch with Lee to find out more about his work since his time at Southeastern and how he has effectively adapted it to our new world of closures and social distancing.
Q. Tell us about your work at Calvin Coolidge High School.
A. I teach chemistry and physics in the Early Coolidge Academy at Calvin Coolidge High School. In this academy, students will graduate in four years with their high school diploma and their two-year associate degree. I’ve been teaching at Calvin Coolidge High School for one academic year.
Q. What brought you to Washington, D.C.?
A. I was living in Lawrence, Kansas, from 2006 to 2011. After five years, I knew it was time for a change. I choose Washington, D.C., because I wanted to work and live in the Nation’s capital. Living in D.C. has been fantastic because I have the opportunity to work for one of the best school districts in the world: D.C. Public Schools District.
Q. What inspired you to convert your home kitchen into an at-home chemistry lab?
A. During this pandemic, our students have experienced an unprecedented amount of change. I wanted them to see a familiar environment when they logged into their online classroom. Having a familiar environment decreases students’ anxiety, thus increasing learning.
Q. What impact has it had so far on your students?
A. They love it!!! Students want to learn, whether it’s face to face or through distance learning. They want to learn. Learning will always find a way.
Q. What have you learned from this experience?
A. I learned that teachers are not just teachers of content. We don’t just teach to the brain of the child; we teach the whole child. We teach to their past, present, and future experiences. I also learned that learning does not have to happen inside of four walls; it can happen anywhere.
Q. How did ABC find out about your innovative way of virtually teaching?
A. They saw my classroom over twitter and reached out. This is the age that we live in, the power of social media.
Q. What were your first thoughts when your grant win was announced? What effect will this have on your school and the students?
A. I was SHOCKED. I thought my students were my surprise. I had no idea it was a monetary gift. Every teacher fantasizes what they could do if they had x amount of dollars. This fantastic gift will allow me to order state-of-the-art chemistry materials for my students.
Q. Tell us briefly about your other current work.
A. I currently teach undergraduate marketing classes at the University of Phoenix, and I am part of the Institutional Evaluation and Improvement team. This team evaluates colleges within the University to ensure they meet the national accreditation standards.
Q. Are you still in touch with any of your former classmates or teachers from Southeastern? How did your time at Southeastern impact you?
A. Yes, I keep in touch with Dr. Celina Echols. She was my educational psychology professor. She was tough but fair. I thank Dr. Echols for having astronomical standards for her students. I learned the most about life from her. I keep in touch with a few of my classmates, but none of them live in D.C. Some live in Louisiana, and some live in New York, New York.
The experiences I had at Southeastern were some of the best times of my life. Southeastern Louisiana University was my second family. It taught me how to interact with a diverse group of people.