Oklahoma Foundation for Excellence


February 26, 2018 - Medal for Excellence-Winning Educators Announced

by OFE | 2018-02-27 11:34:50

The Oklahoma Foundation for Excellence has announced the winners of its 2018 Oklahoma Medal for Excellence awards honoring five outstanding educators in Oklahoma’s public schools.

The awards will be presented at the foundation’s 32nd annual Academic Awards Banquet on May 19 at the Embassy Suites Conference Center in Norman. 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 Tim Brown of Edmond.

This year’s Medal for Excellence winners and their award categories are: Brandi Caldwell, Lakeview Elementary School, NORMAN, elementary teaching; Janet Johnson, Clyde Boyd Middle School, SAND SPRINGS, secondary teaching; Ronia Davison, principal, Sadler Arts Academy, MUSKOGEE; elementary/secondary administration; Dr. Margaret Cotter-Lynch, professor of English and Honors Program Director, Southeastern Oklahoma State University, DURANT, regional university/community college teaching; and Dr. Tyler Ley, professor of civil engineering, Oklahoma State University, STILLWATER, research university teaching.

“We know that education is the best investment Oklahoma can make in its future,” said David L. Boren, founder and chairman of the Oklahoma Foundation for Excellence, a non-profit organization that recognizes and encourages academic excellence in the state’s public schools. “By honoring these exceptional educators, we are sending a message that we deeply value excellence in public schools and the professionals who have given so much of themselves to enrich the lives of our children.”

Brandi Caldwell, winner of the Oklahoma Medal for Excellence in Elementary Teaching, teaches fifth grade at Lakeview Elementary School in Norman. With 13 years as an educator, Caldwell is dedicated to building deep relationships with students and nurturing their innate curiosity to make them lifelong learners and engaged citizens.

“I believe strengthening our nation begins with our children,” Caldwell said. “The best way to capitalize on that is through the inherent curiosity of children. If we, as an education community, prepare students for how to find the answers to their own questions and teach them how to work in groups to improve their answers, we will be sending them out into the world as complex problem-solvers who possess the social skills to lead and fill the jobs of the future.”

As a district trainer for Guided Inquiry Design, Caldwell helps fellow teachers design inquiry-based lessons that teach students the importance of being curious. In her own classroom, fifth-graders dive deep into curriculum by asking their own questions and researching the answers. During “Genius Hour,” Caldwell’s students choose a topic they are passionate about and spend an hour each week exploring that topic. Caldwell’s students share what they learn through creative presentations such as video productions using a green screen, stop-motion animation, plays or visual arts.

Caldwell served three years as an instructional coach and is a mentor to teachers in Norman and beyond. Through her blog, “My Teacher Friend,” Caldwell shares resources and collaborates with educators online.

 “One of the major keys to Brandi’s success with her students is her pursuit of relationships,” said Assistant Superintendent Shirley Simmons. “Her students know she loves them and will never give up on them.”

During morning meetings, Caldwell implements strategies such as “Sunshines and Clouds” in which students can share positive and negative things happening in their lives. She also holds regular lunch bunch groups with her students. These techniques provide her with invaluable information about the joys, sorrows and potential crises in her students’ lives and give students “a space to be heard.”

Student Ella Teuscher said one of the things Caldwell does best is listening. “She can always tell when there is something wrong in your life outside of school or inside of school. She is always there when you need it.”

Janet Johnson, winner of the Medal for Excellence in Secondary Teaching, teaches seventh and eighth-grade science and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) at Clyde Boyd Middle School in Sand Springs. Johnson is a National Board-Certified educator who utilizes real-world problem-solving and service learning to make science engaging, meaningful and fun.

“My greatest accomplishment in teaching was presenting a student who was born without a hand with a 3-D printed prosthetic hand created by students in my class,” Johnson said. After receiving a grant for a 3-D printer, Johnson challenged her seventh-graders to collaboratively design a plastic hand for a fellow student. Not only was he able to pick up an object for the first time, but he has gone paddle boarding in the ocean and lifted weights with his new hand.

“My students understand that learning is about gathering information to solve a real-world problem,” Johnson said. “Science is not just a subject in school, but has a higher purpose … it exists to improve human lives.”

Johnson leads a paperless classroom and has received more than $30,000 in grants to provide the latest technology to enhance student learning. Currently, her students are working on creating therapeutic toys for multi-handicapped students in the district. Her students participated in mock crime scene investigations that require blood typing, finger printing and DNA analysis to solve a murder mystery. After Johnson attended a summer space camp, she guided students in making landers, rovers and water filtration systems for a Mars mission.

Johnson extends learning beyond the classroom walls, having students perform water quality testing to analyze the health of the local river. She also takes a group of students to the Florida Everglades each year to learn about conservation, ecology and career opportunities. As a result, some of her students are pursuing careers in marine biology and hydroelectric engineering.

A 2018 Oklahoma Teacher of the Year finalist, Johnson also has created an after-school STEM club that meets twice each week and launched a schoolwide STEM challenge.

“It is Janet’s core belief that a student will have more success if they are learning something meaningful,” said colleague Jill Sandberg. “Her mantra has served her well over the years and is woven into everything she does, from sponsoring clubs to mentoring fellow teachers and assessing her students.”

The winner of the Medal for Excellence in Elementary/Secondary Administration is Ronia Davison, principal of Sadler Arts Academy, a magnet school serving Muskogee students in grades K through 8. Davison served 13 years as an award-winning teacher at Sadler before becoming principal in 2010.  

“Ronia is a living example of the qualities that make up an excellent administrator,” said Melony Carey, Muskogee Education Foundation board member. “She models the behaviors she expects others to live by, whether about teaching a well-planned lesson or being an ethical leader.”

Carey said Sadler Arts Academy has consistently received an A on the Oklahoma School Report Card because of Davison’s adherence to the vision and mission of Sadler to integrate the arts throughout each subject area. “She understands the importance of the arts to enliven children’s minds and engage them in real world understanding of subject matter.”

Davison is also committed to building strong relationships. She personally greets students when they arrive in the morning and never misses an opportunity to compliment good behavior. “Relationships are imperative and permeate all that we do at our school,” she said. She also strives to make teachers feel valued and to provide the tools, training and emotional support they need to succeed. As a result, the school has a high teacher retention rate.

Valuing shared leadership, Davison meets with teacher leaders weekly to discuss instructional and school culture issues, including classroom climate, character practices and goal attainment. She has also led the school to focus on the development of the whole child, giving equal importance to the development of a student’s emotional intelligence and empathetic behavior. Among the school’s guiding principles are to be “kind to each other, tenderhearted and forgiving.” In recognition of its efforts, Sadler Arts Academy was named a National School of Character in 2014.

Under Davison’s leadership, the school has received more than $400,000 in grants and donations, and recently built a new media center, including a STEM Room, technology lab, DaVinci Design space and dance studio. In 2016, Sadler Arts Academy was named a National Blue Ribbon School, ranking it in the top one-half of one percent of the nation’s schools in academic achievement.

“These prestigious distinctions support the fact that we recognize that the arts, rigor, character development and meaningful relationships meet the needs of each of our students at their individual level,” Davison said.

Dr. Margaret Cotter-Lynch, the recipient of the Oklahoma Medal for Excellence in Teaching at a Regional University/Community College, is a professor of English and Honors Program director at Southeastern Oklahoma State University. She is a scholar on literary theory, Medieval Latin grammar and early Christian theology, but at Southeastern she is best known as an encouraging mentor who helps students discover and pursue their potential.

“My best friend coined the term ‘parentessor’ to describe what I do for a living: half parent, half professor,” said Cotter-Lynch, who serves as an adviser to more than 100 English and Honors students. Many of her students come from rural communities and are first-generation college students. “For me, teaching is not confined to the classroom, nor is it about merely conveying subject-area content. It is about contributing to students’ growth and success as humans.”

Being a good human requires participation in community, she says. To that end, she has helped design a new Honors curriculum that focuses on trans-disciplinary learning and community engagement. “This is a fancy way of saying that a student’s entire educational experience should coalesce around the goal of making them a contributing member of a strong and functioning community,” she said. The curriculum also focuses applying what a student learns in one course to other classes and to the outside world. Cotter-Lynch co-teaches a trans-disciplinary English and history course to help students learn to view content from another disciplinary perspective and consider how it applies to their own lives.

“Margaret’s warm personality and inclusive pedagogy make class compelling,” says former student Hannah Jones, who credits Cotter-Lynch with helping her secure a scholarship to pursue a Ph.D. in history in New York. “In her upper level courses, we spent most of the time engaging in circular group discussion, extrapolating on ideas found in texts we read for the week and debating different perspectives.”

 Faculty Senate Chair F. Daniel Althoff said Cotter-Lynch’s courses are widely praised by her students and that her recent appointment as Honors Program director has reinvigorated the program, with enrollment skyrocketing. She was selected by students and faculty in 2015 and 2017 as Southeastern’s Professor of the Year.

Dewey Briscoe, a non-traditional student, said he is the first in his family to receive a college degree, thanks to Dr. Cotter-Lynch. “No matter how many times I wanted to throw in the towel, she would never let me. She knew what I was capable of and continued to challenge me and hold me to those standards.”

The winner of the Medal for Excellence in Teaching at a Research University is Dr. Tyler Ley, professor of civil engineering and the Gilbert, Cooper, W&W Steel Chair at Oklahoma State University.  His 20 years of experience as a professional engineer in design and construction, coupled with his creativity and passion for teaching, have earned him top ratings among OSU students.

“Dr. Ley is an extremely engaging lecturer – one never naps during his presentations,” said Engineering Dean Paul Tikalsky. “He combines a deep understanding of the material with humor. Five minutes with Tyler will convince you that concrete is the best and most beautiful building material in the world!”

In his teaching, Ley presents information verbally, graphically and kinetically to help students grasp difficult concepts. “I often use stories from history that involve important engineering milestones to introduce a topic with a human connection,” Ley said.  Next, he presents data with graphs and tables to illustrate the topic analytically. Finally, he uses a prop or simple experiment to demonstrate the concept in action.

To help students understand the cement hardening or hydration, Ley has had students act out different molecules, cement grains and reaction products to simulate the process. Their engineering play can be seen online at “This annual event has become something my students love doing,” Ley said.

Former student Katelyn O’Quinn said Ley often challenges students to competitions where they design, build and test different structures – such as a beam made with concrete and wire hangers – to test concepts they learn in class. He also takes students on construction tours to observe real-world applications of engineering principles.

“At the end of class, we had a large design project that required us to incorporate all we had learned into one building design,” O’Quinn said.  “This use of all different types of learning created an enjoyable environment that made learning fun, while still challenging and effective.”

To promote engineering to future generations, Ley started an after-school program, “Engineering is Everywhere,” in 2012 for Stillwater fifth-graders. He collaborated with OSU’s education department to develop hands-on curriculum and videos, which he shares with hundreds of students each year through his
website  He has also created a YouTube channel, found at, to teach people about engineering and concrete. 

Ley is also a prominent researcher and is a primary author of a new national design specification to create durable concrete infrastructure.  He has developed design tools and equipment for concrete construction used around the United States and in several other countries.  He has previously been awarded the National Science Foundation Career Award, American Concrete Institute Faculty Achievement Award, OSU Regents Research Award, Marlin J. Knutsen Award from the American Concrete Paving Association, and was named a Global Ambassador by the American Ceramic Society.

“Tyler Ley is exactly the kind of creative thinker and educator that Oklahoma needs to lead our efforts in educating tomorrow’s innovators and solving today’s problems,” Tikalsky added.

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 19 banquet. The Academic Awards Banquet is open to the public, with admission priced at $50. For more information, call the Foundation for Excellence office at (405) 236-0006 or visit its website at