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Omaha educator surprised with ‘Nebraska Teacher of the Year Award’

Published: Oct. 13, 2021 at 1:42 PM CDT
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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - An Omaha educator will be representing Nebraska as the Teacher of the Year and the honor; while one he worked hard for, still came as a big surprise.

Lee Perez was brought to tears Wednesday morning as he followed his students into the Library of Alice Buffet Magnet Middle School.

He walked into a room full of family, friends, and respected colleagues, eagerly waiting to congratulate him.

He was immediately presented with the Teacher of the Year award by Nebraska Education Commissioner Matthew Blomstedt.

“When I interviewed for ‘Teacher of the Year, I told the committee I want to see change,” said Perez.

Perez teacher ESL - English as a second language, and he says diversity is major part of the success stories for students of color.

“Our refugees, our immigrants, our migrant communities...they’re our future lawyers and doctors,” he added.

But Perez also acknowledged that many of them have to fight through incredible hardship to get there and being immersed in a new culture, all while learning a new language, shouldn’t be a burden they carry alone.

“A lot of my students come from trauma -- like war, famine, political destabilization,” Perez listed.

It’s why the recognition is so meaningful.

He is the first ever ESL educator to earn the title, and said it validates that having someone who looks and talks like their students successfully helps build bridges.

Something he wants to see much more of.

“I hope that me winning this will help increase teachers of color, not just in Nebraska, but across the nation. We face a huge teacher shortage right now.”

Perez is the son of a Mexican immigrant who was often made fun of and punished as a child for not knowing English.

His wife, Mariana Cruz said she watched him work on the application for months, carefully weaving that heartfelt anecdote in, to make sure he conveyed how crucial it is to be culturally aware, tolerant and kind to all children.

“This is one of the things that he feels very passionate about and so I’m very proud of Lee. He is inspiring his students to possibly become the next generation of teachers or anything else they want to set their goals on and that’ really cool to see,” said Cruz as she fought back a few tears of joy.

The journey is far from over though.

Perez hopes to travel more, offering professional development and culturally responsive teaching as a way to strengthen the education system.

He’ll also participate in the ‘National Teacher of the Year’ competition later this year.

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