Lionel Clegg was speechless when he heard his name announced as the winner of the 2021 Prize for Excellence in Education K-5 Educator of the Year Award.
“I was shaking. I did not expect to win,” recalled Mr. Clegg, a first-grade teacher at Woodlawn Elementary. “I thought I was just interviewing to be a finalist for Educator of the Year, so it threw me off when they came out with the check. Winning was an unexpected and very pleasant surprise.”
While Lionel was stunned by the honor, Woodlawn students, parents, faculty and others shared much of his joy—without the shock. For the Woodlawn community, Lionel was an obvious choice. Lionel has deep roots within the school community and an unwavering dedication to going above and beyond to prepare his students for life and the second grade.
As nominations are now open for the 2022 OnPoint Prize for Excellence in Education Educator of the Year, we took this opportunity to learn more from Mr. Clegg about his experience as a teacher. He shared details about the importance of Black teachers, his teaching style, and why it’s critical to honor impactful educators in our community.
How shared experiences fuel deep connections.
Mr. Clegg has been a teacher at Woodlawn Elementary for 23 years. However, the first time he walked the halls wasn’t as an educator—it was as a student. Having grown up in the neighborhood on a similar path as his students, Lionel has a unique perspective.
“It’s important for white students to look up to people of color, and it’s even more important for students of color to have teachers who look like them,” said Mr. Clegg. “My fourth-grade teacher was my first teacher of color, and she gave me a great sense of pride in who I am.”
Lionel serves a critical role as one of only 2% of American teachers who are Black men—a role that is especially significant for Woodlawn’s students of color. Studies show that when students of color learn from a Black teacher during the elementary years, they are less likely to drop out of high school and more likely to attend college.
In addition to his work inside the classroom, Mr. Clegg tutors students about African American history, created the “Boys of Distinction” mentoring program at Woodlawn, partners with the Black Parent Initiative, and supports underserved children through Self Enhancement, Inc.’s summer program. Lionel has shown his commitment to working toward racial and social justice outside of the classroom for more than two decades.
“Volunteering in the community gives me the chance to reach students and families who do not attend Woodlawn,” said Mr. Clegg. “Through my work with the Black Parent Initiative, I engage parents on how to support their children academically because no matter how successful I was with the children in my classroom, the same level of rigor and support needed to be reinforced at home. When educators and parents work together, students are more successful both in and out of the class.”
Mr. Clegg’s student advocacy also goes beyond basic academics. He has taught students in and outside his classroom who have faced unimaginable adversity, including physical or mental abuse. He views each day in the classroom as an opportunity to share knowledge with his students and build them into strong adults.
Inspiring critical thinkers through strong relationships.
Engaging, supporting and empowering students helps Lionel build strong relationships based on mutual respect and trust. “If you want to teach them, you’ve got to reach them. To reach them, you have to establish relationships,” said Mr. Clegg. “I can present the best lesson in the world, but what child is going to listen to me if the trust isn’t there?”
In Lionel’s experience, teachers and parents sometimes don’t push kids to achieve their full potential—ensuring they’re “ready” before offering new challenges. Lionel takes a different approach and lets his students define their limits.
“We can teach kids to build a rocket as long as we put the information in a way that makes sense to them and allows them to determine what their limits are,” he continued. “I don’t want my students just to know the answer. I need them also to know why this is the answer and be ready to defend and explain their understandings to someone else who may have a different opinion.”
Creating this solid educational foundation opens opportunities for children to reach their full potential. The best educators in our community give local students more than lessons. They awaken a passion for learning and open students to new ideas and perspectives while fostering critical thinking skills. For many teachers, this isn’t a job. It’s a calling.
The importance of recognizing the critical work of local educators.
Educators continue to face unprecedented, complex challenges. The ongoing pandemic has contributed to workforce shortages and an increased burden on many local teachers. It is critical to find ways to recognize educators for their incredible contributions during these difficult times. The OnPoint Prize is one way our community can help recognize the invaluable work of local educators.
“Winning this award validated a lot of the things we do,” said Mr. Clegg. “Teachers don’t do this for the money. We do it because we truly care about the kids. It’s amazing to know OnPoint has our back and recognizes the work we do.”
As the education community continues to adapt and demonstrate resilience in the face of an ever-evolving learning environment, OnPoint is more committed than ever to honoring teachers like Mr. Clegg who are raising the bar for excellence in education, inside and outside the classroom.
Honor an outstanding educator in your life today.
We have all had a teacher who left a lasting impact on our lives, or the lives of those we love. The OnPoint Prize is your opportunity to recognize the exceptional work of an educator that you know.
“Teaching is not my job. It is my purpose,” said Mr. Clegg. “I am not just preparing my students for the second grade; I am preparing them for life. I’m grateful for the opportunity to help shape and change the lives of these children. It’s a responsibility I don’t take lightly.”
Nominations are now open for the 2022 OnPoint Prize for Excellence in Education. The OnPoint Prize awards more than $100,000 to local teachers and schools, including paying the mortgage or rent of three grand-prize-winning teachers and making a $2,500 donation to their school. Learn more about nominating a special educator in your life.