Eight-part docuseries highlights this D.C. STEM teacher’s joy for teaching
By Anna Poulson and Dara Klatt
Superheros aren’t fictional; they’re real. Seemingly regular people are doing extraordinary things in our community in these pandemic days. So when Amazon Studios went looking for “Regular Heroes” for their eight-part docuseries, they found a bright light in high school STEM teacher Jonté Lee in the Distict. You may have seen Lee on Good Morning America or ABC WJLA-TV News after he turned his kitchen into a chemistry lab during remote learning this spring to motivate his Calvin Coolidge High School students.
This former marketing specialist in the private sector first discovered the joy of teaching when volunteering with the Big Brother Big Sister program. He followed his passion and became a full-time high school educator by completing the Ready to Teach certification program at Howard University. Since then, Lee has always gone above and beyond for his students – offering to help with food or even prom dresses. But it was his elaborate and creative experiments that drew national attention and led Big Fish Entertainment production company to reach out to him to participate in the second episode of Regular Heroes.
The transition to virtual STEM instruction wasn’t automatic for Lee, though. He first had to learn how to leverage social media to best connect with his students. “I laugh because I was doing the bare minimum on social media; I never knew all of the possibilities. Using social media has made my dream come true of becoming a community teacher and not just a teacher bound by four walls.”
After school doors closed, ironically, teaching became liberating in a way for Lee. Online, his experiments not only captivated his Coolidge students and the D.C. Public School District, it motivated educators, parents, students and school administrators from San Francisco to Boston. “Positively overwhelming” is how he describes the response to his remote adventures.
Now, this idea of teaching being a boundless profession is largely what drives Lee’s dedication to the craft. He draws on his own experience as a student to explain why being an educator feels like such a calling to him. “When I didn’t feel safe at home, I felt safe at school. My second-grade teacher, Mrs. Richardson, made me feel safe. One night, my mom and step-dad got into a huge argument…I was scared. The next day, I told Mrs. Richardson what happened and she gave me her phone number. She said, ‘If you ever feel unsafe, call me, and I will come and get you.’ Even though I never used the number, it made me feel safe to have it. That phone number was my Superman. I want my students and mentees to know that I am a safe place. I want them to know that no matter what is going on in their lives, they can always count on me.”
Despite drawing leaps of attention with his online strategies, Lee misses the non-verbal expressions and body language of face-to-face instruction that signals how students are grappling with the material. He overcomes this challenge by asking more check-in questions than usual and by having the whole class participate in answering students’ questions. One of his favorite virtual experiments exemplifies this. When he used the vapor from dry ice to extinguish a candle, his class worked together to discern if the carbon dioxide vapor or the cold temperature caused the fire to disappear. This type of teamwork, he says, is what makes him sure that he will incorporate social media into his future lessons when in-person classes do resume. “Social media allowed me to be a community teacher. I want my students to be community students. I want them to post their experiments and receive feedback and answer questions from their community.”
Now considered a hero to both the Coolidge High School community and viewers of Regular Heroes, he wants people to understand their own power. “ I think of myself as a part of the collective of heroes (a super league) that I get to work alongside every day. Everyone matters. We are all heroes to someone. No matter your profession, you matter. You are making a tremendous effort in making things better.”
Lee’s feature on Regular Heroes is available on Amazon in Episode 2 of the docuseries, “The Science Teacher, the Deli Owner and the Zookeeper.” Plus, keep an eye out for another District superhero appearing on the series: Dana Marlowe, founder of I Support Girls. Marlowe has been donating sanitary products to women on the USNS Comfort, which is docked in New York City. She has gained global recognition for her mobilization efforts, including a call from the World Health Organization (WHO) to discuss strategies for global donations. Her story is highlighted in Episode 4, “The Advocate, the Sanitation Worker, and the RV Guy.”