The Long Beach Unified School District has named Millikan High School teacher Lee Underwood as Teacher of the Year. Underwood also is among 66 Teachers of the Year countywide recognized by the Los Angeles County Office of Education today.
“This is an immense honor, and I share it with every one of my students that crosses the threshold of my classroom door, my mentors who have suffused my teaching with the knowledge and passion I bring to the classroom every day, and my professional colleagues who continue to stoke the creative fires within me,” Underwood said.
Underwood is an Advanced Placement (AP) English Literature and Composition teacher and has been an instructor with LBUSD since 2006. Throughout his career, he has encouraged students to dig deeper into the role of literature and its quantifiable outcomes.
Underwood guided a team of science and engineer-focused seniors through their capstone service learning project. Through his implementation of literacy strategies and close reading techniques of major works, the students developed a deep ethical concern for those around the world suffering from a lack of clean drinking water. Together, they developed a project that provided clear and sustainable methods of bringing water filtration systems to places where it is most needed. The project received high praise from the local community, including the mayor of Whittier.
Underwood is described by his students as a teacher who integrates English Literature with engaging learning opportunities. Former student Astrid Quirarte wrote a letter recommending Underwood for Teacher of the Year while she was completing her fourth year as an undergraduate at UC Berkeley studying molecular and cell biology.
“In all my years in school, I have never met a teacher as approachable and caring as Mr. Underwood. Entering UC Berkeley, I felt better prepared to become the scientist I wanted to be. The new approach to scientific training is an interdisciplinary one in which we as scientists must be able to analyze and be critical of the social implications of science and technology – a pedagogy that was heavily practiced and emphasized in Mr. Underwood’s classroom,” Quirarte wrote.
“Of all Mr. Underwood’s attributes, I consider his greatest to be the genuine care he has for all of his students. He would spend extra time after class reading and editing our college application essays, something I greatly benefitted from as a first-generation college student,” Quirarte continued. “As a Latinx student, I had encountered multiple English classes that incorporated literature that was not representative of the student body and the real-world challenges students faced. Mr. Underwood’s integration of contemporary issues regarding discussions of class, race, sex and gender identity was the first time I ever felt seen in the classroom setting. He would facilitate in-depth conversations of these issues while also preparing us with the necessary communication and analytical skills needed to be successful in college.”
Asked for his reaction to such a glowing recommendation, Underwood said, "Astrid often threw me into states of awe and that specific kind of pride a teacher receives from their students when they succeed despite the odds stacked against them. Astrid cares deeply about crafting a better future. She developed early an awareness of the kind of work she'd need to do to get there, which included, among her STEM subjects (and perhaps more importantly), a focused critical study of the literary works that have shaped the world she finds herself in today. When I think of Astrid forging pathways through the world for others to follow, I become immensely hopeful."
Underwood currently is a teacher in Millikan’s QUEST Academy, which includes a rigorous curriculum of accelerated, honors and required AP classes.
Last school year, despite the challenges of the global pandemic, 100% of Millikan’s QUEST students were headed for college at the end of the school year, earning admission to many prestigious, private and public colleges and universities, including multiple University of California and California State University campuses.
Underwood’s dedication to the AP program has been evident through his leadership roles and accomplishments. The AP program, developed by the nonprofit College Board, consists of college-level courses designed to prepare students for college-level studies.
In 2020, Underwood became a College Board Distributed Reader, joining more than 20,000 AP teachers and college professors who evaluate and score millions of students’ free-response questions from the yearly academic exams.
“This honor is an opportunity to advocate for teachers and the art of teaching itself. Our chosen profession requires courage, endurance, vision, and imagination – especially now,” Underwood said. “The profession of teaching is vital to democracy, and I see my role as an honorable and solemn responsibility to it."