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Knowing Students Comes First for Teacher of the Year

Well-loved Instructor Aims to Shine Light on Other Teachers

Question: If there are 100,000 teachers in Michigan, what is the probability of being named the state’s Teacher of the Year?

Answer: The probability cannot easily be calculated because one needs to factor in the countless different qualities that make a teacher outstanding.

If you want to do the straightforward math, East Kentwood High School teacher Luke Wilcox can help. If you want to understand all those other factors, just watch him teach.

Wilcox was named Michigan Teacher of the Year by the state Department of Education Tuesday at a surprise assembly attended by colleagues, students, and his family: wife, Jamie, and children Reese, a third-grader, and Trey, a kindergartner. State Superintendent Brian Whiston announced the award.

AP Stats Students On What Makes Luke Wilcox Teacher of the Year


“He is extremely hard working. … You can tell he loves his job. He is really dedicated and he wants us all to succeed.” -– Kaitlyn Williams

“From the first time I walked into class, I could see his commitment to us was 110 percent. Him giving that commitment makes me want to give 110 percent as well. It makes me want to work hard, get my work done and strive to get an A in the class.” –- Gabriela Leon

“He really makes sure you actually understand what’s going on, and this goes for every single person in the class.” –- Sydney Rucker

“His class is really high-tempo but he makes it really easy to learn. He really motivates us every single day and he makes us want to learn more. It’s really fun learning.” -– Tori Wright

“He puts in so much effort to make sure we want to improve and want to be motivated. He comes in before school and stays after school. … He really instills self-motivation in his students. That’s what makes us want to ‘strive for a five.'” (Five is the top AP exam score) –- Quyhn Tran

“He spends a lot of time getting to know students, and all our different interests. He really goes above and beyond in relating to students.” -– Alem Cesko

“I think he establishes such a great connection. The classroom doesn’t feel like a classroom anymore. It feel like home and some place you’re welcome. With that different motivation comes among all of us.” –- Narcis Sprecic

“I had no idea. It was such a crazy surprise to me; I was very overwhelmed. I got emotional,” said Wilcox, who was also a finalist for the MTOY award in 2015.

Wilcox helps his students – all of them – understandnumbers and how they work. But in a black-and-white world of data, he recognizes the nuances, the shades of gray present in each and every student who sits in front of him. He gets to know what makes them tick, what makes them connect, and that’s how things add up to produce his great teaching results.

It’s almost like Wilcox creates a customized plan for each student in his Advanced Placement Statistics class, all with the common end goal of “Strive for Five.” That means earn a top score of five on the AP exam.

“I was one of the more struggling students,” said senior and AP statistics student Erica Simbi. “Usually teachers don’t recognize that or, if they do, they don’t care. Mr. Wilcox pulled me aside; he had me stay after; he had me come in early in the morning; he had me sign contracts.”

He suggested cutting down her hours at work and gave her advice for making more time for school.

“Even though he has a lot of students he still finds a way to connect with every single one of his students,” Erica said. “I think I really did get a five on the AP exam.”

What Makes a Teacher of the Year?

It’s 8:40 a.m. on a Wednesday and Wilcox has already been at school for nearly four hours. He arrives at about 5 a.m. every morning to write a teachers’ edition of an AP statistics textbook and work on his website, TheStatsMedic.com (geared toward helping math teachers become more comfortable teaching statistics). He often stays after the final bell to meet with teachers in his Rising Teacher Leaders group, which he started last year to help new teachers learn the ropes.

It’s the day following the Teacher of the Year ceremony, and instead of math, Wilcox gives his AP statistics class a writing assignment: Share the story of your education up to this point.

He tells students he will spend next school year speaking to educators and policy makers. “One of the things I want to bring to the table is the voice of students. I want to be able to share you. I want to be able to share the students of East Kentwood High School.”

It’s safe to say Wilcox might get a mention or two in his students’ pieces. Besides writing math books and empowering other teachers, Wilcox teaches statistics in a way students grasp. His track record of getting them to know the material is near-perfect. In the last 10 years – if you look at cumulative results – he’s had a 97 percent pass rate for AP exams.

It’s just about so much more than teaching math, he explained.

“It all goes back to the relationships with students,” Wilcox said. “The teacher has to know the student; the student has to know the teacher cares about them as an individual and cares about their success. That strategy is going to work in any classroom, in any subject area at every level.”

‘I want to be an ambassador who brings light to the wonderful things that teachers are doing in classrooms in the state of Michigan.’ — Luke Wilcox, Michigan Teacher of the Year

Wilcox has taught Algebra 1, Geometry, Pre-Calculus and AP Statistics at East Kentwood High Schools since 2001, and has served as Math Department chairperson for the past several years.

Wilcox said he realized at a young age the impact a teacher can have. He faced obstacles as a child of divorced parents. “I was a free and reduced lunch kid.”

Still, he had teachers and counselors at Northville Public Schools on the east side of the state who inspired and motivated him. He excelled and enrolled in the School of Engineering at University of Michigan after graduating.

At U-M, he said, “I startedtutoring students in geometry just to make some extra money and I discovered, ‘This is what my calling is.’ I had kids that were doing very poorly in geometry and I was able to help them turn it around and build confidence.”

He soon switched to the School of Education.

Luke Wilcox shakes hands with State Superintendent Brian Whiston

Reaching All Students

East Kentwood High School is the most diverse school in the state, where students from more than 60 countries walk the hallways. They are the reason, Wilcox said, that he gets up every day. For him, the Teacher of the Year award is really about them, each and every student.

“The first thing we need to do is develop positive relationships with students, to get to know them as individuals, and what type of a learner they are because we have such a diversity of learners here,” Wilcox said. “I feel like that’s something we do really well in Kentwood: we provide the right support and resources for every kid to get to whatever their potential is.”

Wilcox also serves on the School Leadership Team, helping grow teachers as leaders.

“What makes Luke especially outstanding is not only what he does inside the classroom but what he does in the whole building,” said fellow math teacher Jenin Shamali. “He inspires us to be better teachers.

“His motivation, his drive, it’s selfless,” said Lindsey Szczepanek, another math teacher. “He’s looking for the best interest of not just our department and school but for education in general, and what can we do to (improve) mathematics in general, across the U.S. really.”

“He motivates us to work hard. He works so hard that it makes me want to work harder to match up,” said math teacher Lindsey Gallas.

This is not his first recognition; Wilcox has also won the prestigious Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics.

Teachers said Wilcox inspires them to work harder

Creating Lasting Improvement

East Kentwood High School was named a state Priority School four years ago, ranking at the 4th percentile, meaning 19 out of 20 schools in Michigan were deemed better. In 2016, however, the school leapt to the 49th percentile, and Principal Omar Bakri said much of that has to do with Wilcox. Improvement required systemic change, collaboration and bringing everyone on board.

“Luke without a doubt was that voice of reassurance, that voice of confidence to our staff that said, ‘You know what? We can do this,'” Bakri said. “Luke is a leader amongst teacher leaders. Positions don’t make leaders. Leaders are folks that can get people to follow them. That’s Luke.”

Superintendent Michael Zoerhoff said Wilcox embodies the best of Kentwood.

“He’s been our Teacher of the Year for many years,” Zoerhoff said. “He’s very well-deserving. He fits into what we do in Kentwood very well. He models that growth mindset and Kentwood grit to create excellence.

“He builds positive relationships with his students,” he added. “They love him and he loves them, and they succeed all together because of that relationship.”

Luke Wilcox is Michigan Teacher of the Year for the 2017-2018 school year

A Mission to Share Kentwood’s Story

Wilcox said the award is bigger than him, and belongs to the whole community. Because of that, he sees his Teacher of the Year role as an opportunity to continue to serve his district and beyond.

“One very important thing to me is to share the story of East Kentwood High School and Kentwood Public Schools, and the great things that are happening here, but also the great things that are happening in Michigan education all over the state,” he said. “I want to be an ambassador who brings light to the wonderful things that teachers are doing in classrooms in the state of Michigan.”

In a political climate where public education faces threats, and decisions are often made by politicians who have never worked in education, Wilcox wants to provide a real look at what happens inside schools.

“My perspective is real-life classroom stuff. That’s where my expertise is. I may not have expertise in financial systems and structures for schools, but if you want to ask me, ‘How will this affect what happens in classrooms?’ I can at least share my experiences in my classroom and my colleagues’ classrooms to help inform decisions that get made at a higher level.”

He also wants to be the voice of the disadvantaged student and what’s needed to provide equity in education.

“That’s a big part of who we are here in Kentwood, and a big part of our goal is to provide the right resources for all of our kids. Sometimes those student voices are left out, and I want to make sure they are part of the conversation.”

As Teacher of the Year, Wilcox will have more chances to reform, motivate, inspire and get people talking about what is needed in public education. So, what is the probability he will impact thousands upon thousands of teachers and students, all while giving them a voice?



Michigan Teacher of the Year

Luke Wilcox talks to seniors Kyra Bushman and Jaylen Byers
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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is managing editor and reporter, covering Kentwood, Lowell and Wyoming. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013, and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio


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