MEA member Luke Wilcox struggled after his parents divorced when he was in fourth grade. Living with his single mom, Wilcox received free and reduced lunches through his years at Northville High School.
It was public school teachers who pushed him to reach his potential, helping him rise to become valedictorian of his graduating class, he says.
Now Wilcox is that teacher.
For his passionate work inspiring both students and staff as a math teacher at East Kentwood High School, Wilcox was named Michigan’s 2017 Teacher of the Year this week – an honor he described as “overwhelming” and reflective of the hard work and professionalism of the entire staff.
“The only way I’ve learned to improve as a teacher is with the help of a lot of wonderful teachers here at East Kentwood High School,” he told the audience at Tuesday’s ceremony, naming several of his mentors and crediting the math department with granting him the freedom to “take risks, to try things, to grow. “
Wilcox received a standing ovation when the award was announced during a surprise assembly at the 1,800-student Grand Rapids-area school, where 56 percent of students are low-income and 60 percent are minorities. The pep band played the fight song, and students cheered and high-fived him on his way to the stage.
“He expects a lot, but he gives so much back,” said senior Amari Brown, a student in his AP Statistics class. “He cares about students on a one-on-one basis, which makes a huge difference. He turns students around. I know I can’t let him down, because he’s put so much trust in me.”
A 15-year veteran, Wilcox is praised equally by colleagues and administrators for his professional leadership in the building. Last school year he started a Rising Teacher Leaders group comprised of all the newly hired educators. A second cohort was added to the group this year.
In addition, he organized teachers in the building to be their own providers of quality professional development at staff workshops – an affirmation of the faculty’s expertise and understanding of what educators need to continue learning and improving as practitioners.
“He’s done a lot to bring resources together so people are not working alone in their silos,” said Assistant Principal Dominic Lowe.
His philosophy of teaching is simple: “I always love my content; I’m a math teacher. I love math, and I think that is super important. But I think what is far more important is to help students prepare to be successful in life and to reach their potential, and we may just use the context of mathematics as a way to teach students the skills and abilities that they need to create goals, go after those goals, and reach for those goals.
“Ultimately, my philosophy of teaching is about long-term success of students – far beyond what we do in one semester or two semesters in my classroom.”
Wilcox attended University of Michigan after high school, originally planning to become an engineer – a career path he chose simply because he loved math, he said. When he became a popular tutor, occasionally running large group tutoring sessions at U-M, he realized he loved teaching.
Changing his major from engineering to education cut his earning potential in half, yet his parents still supported him, he joked during the award ceremony. In attendance were his mother, Nancee Wilcox, and his father Jim Wilcox – a middle school counselor – and stepmother Kathy Wilcox, a professor at Spring Arbor University.
A recent recipient of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics Teaching, Wilcox also took a moment to thank his immediate family for their support and inspiration: his wife, Jamie, a third grade teacher in North View; daughter Reese, 8, and son Trey, 6.
The Michigan Department of Education (MDE) uses this award annually to honor Michigan’s exemplary educators. The State Board of Education honors the MTOY with a non-voting seat at the Board table during its regular monthly meetings.
The one-year tenure as Teacher of the Year is only the beginning of an incredible journey that includes meetings with other state winners and networking with teacher leaders from across the state and country, said Tracy Horodyski, last year’s winner, who attended this week’s ceremony.
“It’s an incredible learning experience to see the bigger picture of education, and there’s such a sense of pride in seeing the power of public education,” Horodyski said. “I want to continue being a voice on behalf of my colleagues, profession, and students.”
The MTOY is selected by a committee that reviews nominees from teachers throughout Michigan. Nominees submit biographies and written essays that describe educational history; professional development activities; philosophy of teaching; and thoughts on emerging education trends and issues.
The four other MTOY finalists were Jennifer Crotty, government teacher at Warren’s Fitzgerald High School; Raymond Herek, 9-12 Mathematics teacher, Williamston High School; Dave Stuart Jr., World History and English teacher, Cedar Springs Public Schools; and Gina Wilson, 6-12 Mathematics and Science teacher, Washtenaw Educational Option Consortium.