It’s clear that teaching is much more than just following a lesson plan for Alex Lewis. Coming off the recent honor of being named the 2022-2023 JEFCOED Teacher of the Year, Alex is clearly humbled by the honor and passionate about continuing to engage with his students so they are well rounded and prepared for life.
We interview Alex as he joins The Gardendale News Teacher Spotlight Series.
Treye Hanner: Tell us a little about you and how you decided to become a teacher?
Alex Lewis: I have been employed at Gardendale High School for 4 years. I received my undergraduate degree in Secondary Education from UAB in 2017 after completing my student internship with Mr. Ryan Griffin and Mr. Justin Brasher at Gardendale High. I currently teach Holocaust Studies, Psychology, and AP Psychology.
In the past, I have taught US History II. My path to becoming a teacher started in 2nd grade at Hayden Elementary. That was the first year that I remember being in love with school and learning and wanted to soak up as much as I could. At Hayden High, I had three teachers that reinforced my decision heavily.
Each teacher was for a different reason. Mrs. Casondra Edwards showed me how to be a caring and involved sponsor of a club/team. Mrs. Kelly Morton revealed the importance each student has in the personality of the classroom and that each role is pivotal to the chemistry, and Mrs. Faulkner-Barrett emphasized how dire it is to embrace quirks and be relentlessly you in your teaching practice. These three teachers unveiled the social-emotional aspect of teaching for me. As far as content, I have always loved history and felt like I could relay information to my students in a way that they can, not only understand but also relate to. My goal is to change the stigma around social studies and make students realize that it is vastly important to our identity as individuals and as a nation. The only way to do this is to make it applicable to their lives.
Treye Hanner: What is your favorite part of being a teacher?
Alex Lewis: The students by far. I feel more comfortable talking to my students than I do talking to most adults. This is because they know I am here for them and will talk about anything with them (as long as it’s appropriate). This has ranged from content within my courses to content from other classes, politics on a local/state/federal/international level, personal issues or triumphs, music, and the newest movies that have come out.
Teachers, I firmly believe, are much more successful if kids feel like they know the actual personality behind the profession. Not taking yourself too seriously goes a long way with teenagers.
Treye Hanner: Are there special moments where you say to yourself, “this is why I teach?”
Alex Lewis: Absolutely! I have those moments almost every single day. It all comes from my students, whether it is teaching curriculum, having a personable conversation, or watching a classroom debate come to life.
Treye Hanner: What challenges have you experienced while having to teach through the pandemic?
Alex Lewis: March 13th, 2020 changed teachers and students lives drastically. That is the day that a 2-and-a-half-week Spring Break was announced. Obviously, that Spring Break became prolonged, and the following year was a year of black boxes on Webex meetings and very little interaction with students.
The pandemic threw teachers into a spiral. Accommodating lesson plans, finding ways to connect with students, and handling an international crisis was a significant hurdle to be jumped then, and continues to be present now.
All teachers want to connect to their students and the pandemic made that incredibly difficult and has continued to present challenges to this day even outside of remote schooling. Speaking for myself, I cannot stand an “I don’t know” answer! The biggest problem I feel we face in education is apathetic students. This was enabled by the pandemic and has stuck around. It is easy for kids to give a shoulder shrug or mumble “I don’t know” when presented with a question or assignment. This alone frustrates teachers more than anything, we only want to engage and teach!
Treye Hanner: What’s the one thing you would like people to know about teachers?
Alex Lewis: That we care about your kids! We want to do everything in our power to build a relationship with them and help them grow into successful humans. If we push them it’s because we want them to see what they are capable of. Too frequently I hear the phrase; “That teacher hates me!” Which is completely untrue!
None of the teachers at GHS, or anywhere else, wake up each morning and say “how do I make that student miserable today?” We are trained to push students to understand the most material they can on top of teaching them how society works outside of a school environment. If a teacher gets mad, frustrated, or annoyed with your student it is more than likely due to us recognizing potential and seeing it fade away because of apathy.
The teachers at GHS all care deeply about our student body and want to watch them succeed! Nobody is hoping students fail, because if one fails or gives up it starts a chain reaction across the student body and eventually no one will care except for the faculty.
Treye Hanner: You were just recognized as the Jefferson County Teacher of the Year for secondary schools. Tell us about that experience and what it means as a teacher?
Alex Lewis: First of all, I have to thank everyone that got me to where I am currently; family, friends, previous teachers, administrators, and my students. I was named GHS Teacher of the Year in early December. This was a major surprise for me and quite a humbling experience. From there I had to complete an application for Jefferson County and submit it. This basically just asked what involvement do you have within the school and what is your education disposition and philosophy.
In January, I was named a finalist for the JEFCOED Teacher of the Year Award, and I was humbled. I downplay my accomplishments, and despite the way I joke about things, I am a very modest person. At that point, I started feeling like maybe, just maybe, what I am doing at GHS is making a difference in the school culture and students’ lives.
I have two phrases that I live by; “The purpose of life is to contribute in some way to making things better,” and “If you wanna be somebody If you wanna go somewhere, you better wake up and pay attention.” The first of those quotes are from my historical role model, Senator Robert F. Kennedy.
In the 2-and-a-half-week Spring Break and the following summer of 2020, I was feeling burnt out as a teacher (keep in mind that was only after 2 years). I forced myself to switch gears and understand the influence I could have on my students’ lives. I realized, obviously, I can’t make the global situation better, but I could make my students’ experience better.
So, I put in the work. The second quote is from, one of my favorite movies, Sister Act 2. I realize that sounds unprofessional, but the quote/mantra speaks to the core of what it means to be a teacher. I want to make diligent, responsible, intelligent, and empathetic leaders out of my students. I have that power and sphere of influence. But I have to make the conscious decision each day to utilize my influence in a positive way.
Being the Student Council Sponsor and a Boys State Counselor gives me the avenue to model what leadership is and how it can look. What this award has shown me is that my style of leadership and teaching is acceptable and appreciated.
Being named the JEFCOED Teacher of the Year was the validation that I have made a difference and only made me double down on this principle. The importance and magnitude of this recognition are not lost on me, and I cannot say thank you enough to all the people responsible for helping me reach this point in my life.