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Lee Butterfield: Educating Alaskan Minds



The teachable moment came right after a sip of hot, French pressed coffee. The sun beamed upon us over South Anchorage. Award-winning Anchorage School District (ASD) teacher, Lee Butterfield, was ready.

In the lunch room, I noticed a cluster of students pulling cold food out of brown paper bags, instead of purchasing hot food from the cafeteria. I approached the children and asked why.

I am an East High graduate, which is north of Tudor. My graduating class imagined every student attending a school south of Tudor as coming from well-to-do households. The children giggled at my question and answered, “We live on Lower Hillside!”

The look on my face made clear what I was thinking: that makes a difference? Whether “Lower Hillside” or “Upper Hillside,” you are still in South Anchorage, which means you’re rich!

My conclusion was based solely on preconception, not facts.

Butterfield chimed in, obviously disappointed in my prejudice toward the wealthy: “The parents of those kids probably don’t like the food served at school. There’s a lot of money represented in those bags. Money that buys nutrition.”

He offered a wry smile, then permitted a pregnant pause for my mind to process the new information he had given it. A flicker of hope remained that I would continue thinking and come to a new conclusion.

In 2013, Butterfield earned third place for the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) Teacher Innovator award, recognizing the genius Goldenview Middle School students displayed via YouTube using the digital recording methods he taught them. In 2014, he earned national attention as one of PBS’s 100 Digital Innovators. He is now being recommended for the National Teaching award in 2015.

Butterfield is proud, however, he doesn’t brag. Awards are about achievement. They help those of us who don’t know anything about a profession to appreciate the recipient; the award tells us others acknowledge that person’s talent. Awards, unfortunately, do not measure humanity.

Butterfield oozes humanity, a trait he ascribes to a lifetime of diverse experiences. He brings those insights into his classroom.

Imagine Charlie Brown grown up with glasses and you have a good visual of Butterfield. “I stopped growing in the eighth grade,” he jokes. Put a backpack on him and, until he speaks, he is difficult to distinguish from any of South High’s teenage students.

Using childhood memories, he humorously conducts lessons of inclusion and compassion. The experience of his parent’s divorce helps Butterfield relate to his students facing the challenge of their immediate emotional and financial support systems falling away. A career traveling the world with the Montana National Guard helps him handle the nuances of conflict and how to implement conflict resolution techniques.

He uses the real-time experience of digital-aged globalization to prepare his students for a lifetime of near-instant technological advances.

Butterfield reasons that as a child’s emotional response differs, so does their corresponding ability to hear instructions and perform academically. The desire to provide students a judgment-neutral environment where they can explore the limits of their genius is why Butterfield became a teacher.

“Most of the teachers I encountered going to school were just doing a job. Automatons. They weren’t inspired or inspiring,” Butterfield said.

He makes this statement with another wry smile on his face. After all, he’s an ASD employee. He does acknowledge the pressures teachers experience. The administration and political structures are shaping the profession just as actively as classroom interactions between teacher and student.

It is difficult to inspire others while being under intense pressure yourself. The National Guard experience probably helps Butterfield cope better than others, he says.

“Inside my classroom, what I attempt to do is give my students a glimpse into themselves,” Butterfield said.

“I select a project for them, one that plays to their strengths. Naturally, they succeed and get excited. Then, I put the expectations way up here,” he told me, gesturing with his hands to show a significant height differential. “The second project is not so easy. I tell them, ‘Yes, you are going to fail and in failing you will learn something. Now, try again.’ And, they try. Not only do they try, they go beyond what I previously imagined was their limit. That’s my philosophy on teaching in a nutshell.”

Butterfield’s philosophy must fit within the measurement-obsessed pedagogy of education. Inside bureaucracies, innovation happens in a linear, structured manner. Concerning technology, the ASD is focused on implementing the one-on-one technology model.

Across the country, school districts are preparing children for an all-digital world by giving them access to iPads inside classrooms. However, policy is not keeping pace with available technology. Butterfield cites examples of children being punished for being innovative, like hacking into the school mainframe.

“Here’s a kid who actually applies what he is learning and shows a district that their firewall is porous. Instead of rewarding the student by hiring him into a position where he can go further in his experiments, the kid will most likely face expulsion,” Butterfield said. “This is the 21st Century. We are losing a lot of brilliant minds due to policy not keeping up.”

Butterfield attempts to prevent the need for negative self-expression by providing those opportunities. The day before school started, he was busy arranging his classroom into a TV studio where morning announcements and the school newspaper will be broadcasted throughout South High.

Two students buzzed around him, discussing their personal projects. One spent the summer writing the code for a “Wolverine App” designed to place news alerts about high school club activities at his classmate’s fingertips.

The students are obviously inspired to spend their summer learning instead of playing, which means Lee Butterfield is meeting his own standard of being inspiring.