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Q&A With Cherry Award Finalist Hollylynne Lee

Lee, a passionate and lifelong educator, reflects on the lessons she's learned — and taught — on her path to being recognized as one of the nation's most inspiring teachers.

Hollylynne Lee poses outside the College of Education.
Hollylynne Lee is a finalist for the Robert Foster Cherry Award for Great Teaching, given every two years by Baylor University to an outstanding professor.

NC State math and statistics education professor Hollylynne S. Lee remembers the feedback she got from her first pupils — blank, empty stares.

What else would you expect from a pre-adolescent’s room full of dolls and stuffed animals?

That’s how far back Lee’s love of teaching goes, at least the way her mother tells the story.

The daughter of an elementary school teacher and coach, Lee is now a finalist for one of the nation’s top teaching awards, the Robert Foster Cherry Award for Great Teaching, given every two years by Baylor University to an outstanding professor with exceptional teaching skills and a proven record of positive, inspirational and long-lasting impact on their students.

Get to know Lee in this question-and-answer session conducted by Bulletin editor Suzanne Stanard.

Where did you grow up? Were any of your family members educators?

I moved around quite a bit during my early years and attended six different preschools and elementary schools in (Pennsylvania and South Carolina). By fifth grade, we were settled in the rural hometown of my parents, Mt. Pleasant, Pennsylvania, about 45 minutes southeast of Pittsburgh.

My parents were divorced when I was quite young and each remarried. So I was lucky to have four loving parents with different careers and responsibilities. My dad was an elementary teacher for 30-plus years and was highly active in schools through coaching sports and directing plays. He certainly always encouraged me to consider a career as a teacher. Though retired for more than 20 years now, he still likes talking about what goes on in public schools and what I do in my teacher education courses to help prepare teachers.

When did you first become interested in the idea of pursuing a career in education?

My mother will tell you that I always loved school and held “class” in my bedroom with my dolls and stuffed animals from an early age. But I had a lot of different interests and was not really convinced that I wanted to be a teacher until my sophomore year of college. I had excelled in mathematics, though certainly struggled with some ideas in college, and knew I had found a good pathway to combine two things I thought I could be pretty good at and would enjoy.

After teaching for several years, I realized I had a strong desire to learn more about how students thought about math, why they may have been struggling in my classes, and how some of the new technologies in the early 1990s, like graphing calculators, might change what was possible to support better math learning. That is what propelled me to pursue my master’s degree. During that time I had a teaching assistant opportunity working with a professor in secondary methods courses for future math teachers and started doing professional development for teachers on how to incorporate the graphing calculator into math classes. This convinced me I wanted to earn my Ph.D. and become a math teacher educator and a researcher focused on the impacts of technology on teaching and learning.

What do you like best about your job?

I love my colleagues and students. The relationships I build with them and the interesting work we have done over the years really make being a professor one of the best careers for me. One of the best aspects for me being a professor is that my husband, Todd, is also a professor — of mathematics — at Elon University. So our home conversations are often focused on teaching and learning issues and we learn a lot from one another.

The tasks I do here at NC State are different every day and can change dramatically each semester depending on my courses and research projects. It is important to me to engage in the work we do here that has the potential to impact so many other teachers, students, faculty at other institutions, and curriculum and educational technology designers. Doing meaningful and impactful work is important to me.

How does it feel to be named a finalist for the Cherry Award?

I am so honored and humbled to be named a finalist. When Baylor “cold called” me in March, I was speechless — which is a hard feat to pull off for those who know me! I remember the day so clearly as I was pacing around my living room and silently getting my husband’s attention while the chair of the Cherry committee was telling me about this honor and the next steps forward.

It is amazing to me that Baylor puts so much effort into honoring the wishes of Robert Foster Cherry and his passion for thanking and rewarding those who provide great teaching at the university level. To be part of the group of faculty from across the country who have been named as finalists and semifinalists (like our own Laura Bottomley) over the years really drives home the message that universities are filled with great educators and that being an educator and a great teacher goes way beyond the bounds of classroom walls.

What is one of your biggest goals for the coming academic year?

Well, I guess it would be silly if I didn’t have as a goal to be named the 2022 Cherry Award winner! However, my biggest goal is to take this opportunity and really be reflective on my role as an educator, why I do what I do, and to enjoy all the experiences that are coming along with being a finalist. I have already had some wonderful conversations with faculty at Baylor, and I am looking forward to spending a week there teaching some classes and engaging in conversations — obviously in a COVID-safe way.

I will be trying out some new lessons in Baylor classes related to data literacy across the secondary curriculum and teaching a statistics class for elementary and middle school future teachers. I plan on thinking about ways to design new experiences for our students here at NC State related to these ideas, and maybe some new courses I’d like to develop. I fully intend that no matter what, there will be some great lessons learned and potential future collaborations with Baylor faculty. I will be on a planned off-campus scholarly leave in spring 2022. My plans for that include diving deeper into some research projects I have ongoing and writing several manuscripts. Maybe I will also have some new things to think about by the time that starts!

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