Oklahoma Foundation for Excellence Announces 2022 Medal for Excellence Winners
OKLAHOMA CITY- The Oklahoma Foundation for Excellence has announced the winners of its 2022 Oklahoma Medal for Excellence awards honoring five outstanding educators in Oklahoma’s public schools.
The awards will be presented at the foundation’s 36th Academic Awards Celebration on May 21 at the Omni Oklahoma City Hotel. Each of the five winners will receive a $5,000 cash prize and a glass “Roots and Wings” sculpture, designed by the late Oklahoma artist Ron Roberts and produced by Artistic Glass Studio of Edmond.
This year’s Medal for Excellence winners and their award categories are: Lori Zimmerman, a reading teacher at SHATTUCK Middle School, elementary teaching; Elaine Hutchison, a math teacher at FAIRVIEW High School, secondary teaching; Scott Allen, principal of Monroe Elementary School in ENID, elementary/secondary school administration; Elise McCauley, professor of speech, Redlands Community College, EL RENO, regional university/community college teaching; and Dr. K. K. “Muralee” Muraleetharan, professor of civil engineering and environmental science, University of Oklahoma, NORMAN, research university teaching.
“Oklahomans know that education is the best investment we can make for our future,” said Elizabeth Inbody, executive director of the Oklahoma Foundation for Excellence, a nonprofit that recognizes and encourages academic excellence in the state’s public schools. “By honoring these exceptional educators, we are sending a message that we value excellence in public schools and the professionals who have given so much of themselves to enrich the lives of our children.”
Lori Zimmerman, winner of the Oklahoma Medal for Excellence in Elementary Teaching, is a 24-year teaching veteran who began a new post in 2021 as reading teacher at Shattuck Middle School. Zimmerman’s goal each day is to provide original learning opportunities and exciting, magical experiences for her students. She utilizes project-based learning, technology and drama to help students “fall in love with reading.”
At least once each year, Zimmerman transforms her classroom library into Mrs. Z’s Literary Café, where each learner is presented with a buffet of books through a menu of book “tastings.” Instead of
creating old-school book reports, her students make “Book Talk” videos reviewing their books and linking them to a QR code, which is placed in the books for future readers to scan and view online.
After reading biographies, Zimmerman’s students have created a “Wax Museum,” dressing up and portraying historical figures who come to life and share their stories when visitors push a button. When her students read historical fiction about the Holocaust, Zimmerman brought a Holocaust survivor to class to share his story of endurance and invited the community members to visit a student-made Holocaust Museum. “Lori has the ability to seamlessly weave all subjects into her lessons and allow her students to make those all-important learning connections,” said Linda Harrison, former Woodward School Board president.
Parent Sonya Covalt praised Zimmerman for helping her self-proclaimed “non-reader” son become hooked on books. “No other teacher has impacted my son’s desire to read as she did,” Covalt said.
Zimmerman, who has a passion for theater, is also known for dressing up and portraying literary characters – a practice that kept her students especially engaged when the pandemic forced classes to meet online. She recently launched the first drama class at Shattuck Middle School in hopes of instilling an appreciation for theater in her rural community.
Zimmerman is the recipient of numerous teaching honors, including selection as a State Teacher of the Year finalist. Former student Adrianna Tibbetts credits Zimmerman for inspiring her to become a teacher herself. “The examples she gave me, both as a caring person and as an effective educator, have had a huge impact on my life story. I go to work every day and think, ‘How can I be like Lori Zimmerman today?’”
Elaine Hutchison, winner of the Medal for Excellence in Secondary Teaching, is a 29-year teaching veteran who teaches courses in algebra, trigonometry and calculus as well as serving as the academic team coach at Fairview High School.
Hutchison aptly describes her teaching methodology as (HT)6: High Tech, High Touch, Higher-Level Thinking, Hands-On Techniques, Habitual Thankfulness and Heroic Teacher. By engaging her students in meaningful lessons through inquiry-based, cross-curricular learning, they become critical thinkers, problem solvers and effective communicators.
Hutchison utilizes technology to help unlock student potential and hands-on projects to help students connect math concepts to real-world applications. Her students have used trigonometry to design roller coasters, complete with a Google site and video demonstrations. Through an innovation grant in 2019, Hutchison purchased two MakerBot 3-D printers and along with her students became a certified MakerBot Innovator. This year, her high school students are collaborating with third-grade students to design and create 3-D printed cookie cutters for a local bakery.
“Learning in my classroom is ‘messy,’” Hutchison said. “It requires students to do, refine, and create final products that take a substantial amount of time. However, my students will remember their Trig roller coaster projects, 3-D printed fractals, Bungee Barbie data collection labs and Exponential
Growth Investment presentations so much more than any comprehensive test.”
While Hutchison may be legendary for her rigorous, advanced placement math courses, she has a special gift for supporting students who are struggling with math. Special education teacher Rinda Bowden recalls how Hutchison patiently encouraged and worked with a young man learning algebra. He eventually went on to earn an advanced score on the state Algebra 2 test. “Elaine is a master at meeting students where they are and motivating them, pushing them to be THEIR best.”
A National Board Certified teacher and former State Teacher of the Year, Hutchison has inspired many of her former students to pursue teaching careers. Mandy Mason, whose four daughters took math and played on the basketball team coached by Hutchison, said three of her four daughters are teachers and coaches, while the fourth is studying to become a school counselor. “Elaine demands a certain standard from her students, only because she gives the same to each of her students. There is no doubt that the study habits and work ethic that Elaine taught my daughters has led to their successes in life.”
The winner of the Medal for Excellence in Elementary/Secondary Administration is Scott Allen, who has served as principal of Monroe Elementary School in Enid since 2015. Through a transformational growth mindset and series of new initiatives, Allen led Monroe from being an underperforming school to a school of champions.
“When Mr. Allen became principal, he took over a school with a failing grade from the state,” said teacher Pam Seigel, noting that most Monroe students come from low-income families and are often learning to speak English. “Using new programs, intervention strategies and professional development for staff, Monroe became a B+ school!”
Allen instituted weekly Professional Learning Community meetings of school staff and screened the academic performance of each student to “laser focus” strategies for meeting the academic needs of each student. He introduced a new reading curriculum for Pre-K through third-grade students to sharpen phonics skills and participated in a Penpal-a-Principal initiative to encourage reading and writing. Recognizing the high number of students who have endured painful experiences, Allen guided Monroe to become a trauma-informed school through extensive staff training. “When a child is not ‘blooming,’ we don’t try to change the child,” Allen said. “We provide a safe environment where the child can flourish.”
Allen also set out to change school culture and instill a belief in teachers and students that Monroe could reach great heights of success. He started holding daily inspirational assemblies – complete with singing, dancing and call-back affirmations – to help students develop a champion mindset and believe they can overcome life’s obstacles. “His inspired leadership has influenced many of my fifth graders to become positive role models in the school,” said teacher Traci Conrady. “Hope is the message that enables us to go beyond our limitations – as if being a champion were our calling.”
Allen has developed many community partnerships, but the most impactful has been with the 33rd Squadron at nearby Vance Air Force Base. The airmen enthusiastically participate in school assemblies and mentor and read to students. For his leadership, the Squadron recognized Allen as an Honorary Commander.
“The students at Monroe know Mr. Allen cares for them and wants them to succeed,” Seigel added. “In turn, they care about Mr. Allen. It is evident by all the high fives and hugs he receives walking down the hall.”
Elise McCauley, the recipient of the Oklahoma Medal for Excellence in Teaching at a Regional University/Community College, is a professor of speech and English at Redlands Community College. Over her 28 years as an educator, McCauley has worked at the middle school, high school and college levels. Her diverse experiences and the unique challenges her students face have driven home an essential truth for her: “Teachers don’t teach subjects; they teach students.”
McCauley’s empathy and put-the-learner-first focus has helped her adapt her teaching strategies to meet students’ most pressing needs. When she was a rookie teacher at an inner-city school in Tulsa, McCauley adapted her lessons to address some of the daily realities her students faced. “‘Romeo and Juliet’ became about gang violence more than star-crossed lovers; ‘The Odyssey’ became about facing life’s challenges more than classical literature,” McCauley said. “I had students write future autobiographies where they planned to live to 100 so they could visualize the future and set goals.”
Today, as a professor at Redlands Community College, McCauley practices the same strategy based on keen observation of her students’ needs. When COVID forced classes online in 2020, McCauley recognized the need for students to better communicate and physically present themselves in a professional manner over video conferencing platforms, whether for school or job interviews. She incorporated an online training curriculum, Zoom Play Days, into each of her classes. The curriculum received many accolades, including the Great Ideas for Teaching Award from the Oklahoma Association of Community Colleges.
“Professor McCauley maintains a rigor in her classes to prepare her students for the challenges they will face, both academically and professionally, while also showing compassion and empathy for the personal struggles students face,” said colleague Marcia Shottenkirk. She also builds relationships and supports students’ progress through regularly scheduled one-to-one conferences, Shottenkirk added.
Former student Jamie Warren said McCauley is a role model who has made her feel more confident with public speaking. McCauley provided techniques and a note packet for students to prepare their speeches, taught them the fine art of providing constructive criticism, and pushed them outside their comfort zone by assigning impromptu speeches with little prep time.
“I left on the last day of class a better person, public speaker and even a better friend because I am better at communication than I was before,” Warren said.
The winner of the Medal for Excellence in Teaching at a Research University is Dr. K. K. “Muralee” Muraleetharan, a David Ross Boyd Professor of Civil Engineering and Environmental Science at the University of Oklahoma. Inspired by many teaching mentors, Muraleetharan has developed a five-part approach over his 28-year teaching career that seeks to “light a fire” of lifelong learning for his students. For him, effective teaching must encompass excitement for the subject matter, relating lessons
to real-world examples, incorporating the latest technological advances, offering project-based learning for students to apply their knowledge, and truly caring about individual students’ well-being.
“Professor Muralee represents the best of the best in research professorship,” said former student Caroline Cochran, co-founder of a tech startup. “His research is outstanding, his outreach to students unparalleled and his instruction is caring while rigorous and even fun.”
Muraleetharan, who worked in industry as a geotechnical engineer, shares his professional experiences, such as seismic design of the Port of Los Angeles Pier 400 and geoenvironmental investigations of metro rail tunnels, to help get students excited about the real-world applications of engineering. “Many young engineers struggle with making the transition from being a student to being a professional engineer,” said colleague Randall Kolar, director of OU’s School of Civil Engineering and Environmental Science. “Dr. Muralee has the background and passion to help bridge this knowledge gap so his students come out better prepared to enter the workforce.”
Muraleetharan helped develop OU’s introductory civil engineering course to engage students in real-world projects while developing skills fundamental to engineering success. He was also a leader in developing OU’s award-winning civil engineering curriculum Sooner City, in which freshmen are given a plat of undeveloped land that is developed into a blueprint for a virtual city infrastructure by the time they graduate. Projects have ranged from concrete footings for virtual office buildings to floodplain analysis and bridge crossing design.
Colleagues and students alike praised Muraleetharan for going the extra mile to mentor and support students. Former student Jessica Stanciu credits Mureleetharan for helping her explore career options and land her first job. “He is the type of professor you go back to see after college to say, ‘thank you.’ … Thank you for making me feel valued and cared for while building me up with confidence as I go out into the world.”
In addition to presenting the Medal for Excellence awards, the Oklahoma Foundation for Excellence will honor 100 of Oklahoma’s top public high school seniors as Academic All-Staters at its May 21 banquet. The Academic Awards Banquet is open to the public, with admission priced at $65. Registration will open online April 4 at www.ofe.org.