by Emily Nitcher, Omaha World-Herald, Apr 30, 2021
Photo credit: Chris Machian, Omaha World-Herald
After getting the unexpected phone calls, Hannah Holguin and Dianne Lee called each other and carefully danced around the news.
“Did you get good news?”
“I don’t know, did you get good news?”
The Omaha Public Schools math teachers, and graduates of Math in the Middle, had just learned they both were recipients of a 2021 Alice Buffett Outstanding Teacher Award — a fact that is supposed to remain a secret from everyone except immediate family until the official announcement.
Lee and Holguin couldn’t believe it. After teaching through two school years disrupted by the pandemic, the mother and daughter won the award in the same year.
“I was stunned,” Lee said. “Absolutely stunned.”
Every spring, 15 OPS teachers are honored with the award for what they do in the classroom. Alice Buffett, an aunt of billionaire investor Warren Buffett, taught high school home economics in the district for more than 35 years.
The Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation sponsors the awards, which have been handed out each year since 1988.
Parents, students and co-workers nominate teachers who cultivate a love of learning. Each teacher will receive a $10,000 check, a silver engraved medallion and $1,000 in McDonald’s gift cards. No awards dinner will be held this year.
Holguin and Lee are the first mother and daughter to win the award in the same year. It was a coincidence that was discovered only after the winners had been selected.
Winning the award is a great honor for OPS teachers — one teacher compared it to winning the Heisman Trophy — but this year’s winners said the honor felt extra special in 2021.
COVID-19 forced OPS to close schools in March 2020. In August, OPS teachers started the new school year by teaching all students remotely, and then taught in-person and remote lessons simultaneously as students returned to classrooms starting in October.
Holguin said to be an educator “is like the definition of resilience right now.”
“While there’s been a lot of loss, while we faced incredible challenges, we just continue to do our best,” Holguin said of teachers. “That’s all we can do is show up and do our best.”
Lee, a math teacher at Bryan Middle School, hadn’t met some of the students she was suddenly teaching virtually. She heard some voices and saw some faces, while other students remained bubbles on a screen.
Some students thrived in the remote learning environment. Other students benefited from smaller class sizes. Lee also saw greater parent participation and connections with families than she had seen in previous years, including 100% conference attendance.
“It seems like everybody has made it a priority to connect and a priority to make sure that children are given an opportunity to learn even in the worst of circumstances,” Lee said.
And as someone who didn’t grow up with technology, Lee said, she had to learn many new skills to teach math virtually.
“I don’t even think when we finish this year teachers are going to believe all that they have accomplished,” Lee said.
Teachers also stepped up in ways that had nothing to do with curriculum.
Christine Koltas, a second grade teacher at Rose Hill Elementary School, and her student teacher bought groceries for a family after the student’s mother lost her job.
Koltas, another 2021 Alice Buffett Award winner, said she’ll never forget the look on her student’s face as she peeked out the window and saw her teacher leaving the packages at the door.
“Her face just lit up,” Koltas said.
Koltas said she told her student teacher, now an OPS teacher, that one day she would have to do the same thing for a student in one of her classes.
“You’re going to have to do something that has nothing to do with the curriculum, and you know what, that child is always going to remember you did that because you cared,” Koltas said.
Before the pandemic, Holguin, a math teacher at South High School, started a clothing pantry in her classroom. It grew out of a winter coat drive at the school.
One of Holguin’s students needed not only a winter coat, but other basic needs, such as socks. The idea grew from there, and now the closet in Holguin’s classroom is frequented almost daily. The school also now has a pantry for food, which was started in February 2020.
Holguin said her favorite part of the job is the connections and relationships she builds with her students.
“It becomes really family-oriented in my classroom,” Holguin said. “I want them to feel safe. I want them to feel comfortable. I want them to feel like I can be a person — if they don’t have a person, I can be a person for them.”
Holguin said once it’s established that she cares for her students, the learning can begin.
“I don’t teach math,” she said. “I teach students math.”
The teachers said their profession extends beyond duty hours.
“It’s almost in your blood when you’re a teacher,” Koltas said. “It has to be, because it doesn’t turn off. You go home and you plan for the next day. You buy things for your classroom when you’re at the store. You’re always working on it.”
Lee said that’s why she was a little nervous when her daughter wanted to become a teacher. Lee said she knew how dedicated her daughter would be to the profession.
“Hannah’s heart has always been, ‘I want to change the world,’” Lee said.
Holguin said her mother inspired her to go into the profession. Now, Lee said, her daughter inspires her to be a better teacher.
In addition to being mother and daughter, the teachers have a professional bond and still are shocked they are receiving the award in the same year.
“Words can’t describe the joy I feel,” Lee said. “There are times I’m like, ‘Did we really get that phone call? Is it really true?’”
Meet the rest of the Buffett award winners:
by Emily Nitcher, Omaha World-Herald, Apr 30, 2021