By Nathan Pfau, Army Flier Staff WriterSeptember 22, 2016
FORT RUCKER, Ala. -- A Fort Rucker Primary School teacher was named one of three Department of Defense Education Activity state finalists for the nation's highest honor for math and science teachers in 2014.
Two years later, Bridget Lester, FRPS gifted resource and Science, Technology, Engineering and Math lab teacher, received the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching in her grade level.
Lester was one of just over 200 teachers in the U.S. who received the honor, and one of only three DODEA teachers to be recognized during a ceremony in Washington, D.C.
Lynn Irwin, FRPS first grade teacher, observed Lester's teaching style and saw her potential to win the award and nominated her colleague in April 2014.
"I had been able to watch Ms. Lester teach our children about the engineering process through her STEM lessons. She would pull our classes and we would get one solid week a month of STEM and completely go through an engineering project," said Irwin. "She was doing such an amazing job with the children, and the children were really learning that process and they were fine-tuning math and science skills and incorporating technology. I just saw the positive effects it was having on the kids."
The award wasn't anything Lester was expecting.
"I got an email and didn't think anything of it, but about 30 minutes later Ms. Irwin came down and told me that she nominated me for an award," said Lester. "She told me she read the description and I was the first person who popped in her head, so she nominated me."
Throughout the initial process, Lester had just one month to prepare a 10-page reflection essay, 10 additional pages of supplemental writing, as well as a 45-minute unedited video of her teaching process that she had to submit. From there it was more than two years of follow-up emails and background checks until finally in August she found out she had been selected.
"Until it really happens, it doesn't feel real," she said. "It didn't really hit me until I walked into Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., when we were all dressed to get our awards."
Although Lester said she never expected to win such a prestigious award, doing so gave her a sense of validation that what she was doing was actually making a difference.
"I know I'm my own worst critic and always thinking of what I can do to better myself. I think this award validated what I do. Sometimes I feel like I'm just in my own four walls and I think to myself, 'Am I really making a difference?' she asked. "You don't normally see it, and it could be years down the road before you see it, and I feel like that was the biggest thing for me. This helped me see that I know I can learn and improve, and there are ways to improve no matter how good you are."
Throughout her teaching experience, Lester said she not only has the opportunity to cultivate young minds, but also has the chance to learn from her students.
"In the very beginning when I first started (the STEM lab) it was quite different than where I am now," she said. "I started off using a resource book that I had gotten from a meeting and it was really good to start, but then I realized that the children really loved the science aspect of all of this, so I added more science to it.
"Then I realized that my students were wasting a lot of these materials and not truly thinking about the materials they're choosing, so I imposed a budget on them, which makes them think even more," she continued. "If you walked into any of my classes during the same phase, all of the children's projects would be different because the kids have different insights."
It's that type of teaching that helps her children become more self-reliant and to not only think on their own, but work with other students to brainstorm.
Lester said she likes to think of herself as more of a facilitator and to allow the children to work out problems on their own to come up with their solutions, which is vital to her teaching philosophy -- allow the children an opportunity to fail.
"You're going to experience failure in your life and I always tell my kids that you haven't failed unless you've given up, because you're going to learn from it," she said. "I think it helps them that they're allowed to fail, and sometimes it's better to fail because you don't just become comfortable and it gives you the opportunity to learn."
It's that type of thinking and teaching style that Irwin said can inspire not only children, but other teachers, as well, to work hard to reach their goals.
"I think people in the teaching profession are always hesitant to toot their own horns and some teachers don't even realize how good they are at what they're doing," she said. "(Lester) is the best STEM teacher I've seen because there are a lot of teachers who work with children on STEM projects at other grade levels, but doing that with children who are 5 and 6 years old, and having them actually glean and understanding of the process is impressive. I think she's really preparing these children for real-world experiences and I don't think just anybody can do what she does."