Lee Underwood, an Advanced Placement English Literature and Composition teacher at Millikan High School, was named the LBUSD's Teacher of the Year. Photo courtesy Lee Underwood.

There’s no telling when your “aha moment” will happen—when you begin to realize your calling and the plans for your future begin to take shape.

For Lee Underwood, that moment arrived when he was a high school student at nearby St. John Bosco. One class in particular changed his outlook on the world and inspired the next few decades of his life.

As of last week, that moment has officially come full circle for Underwood, who was recognized as the Long Beach Unified School District’s Teacher of the Year.

An Advanced Placement English Literature and Composition teacher at Millikan High School, Underwood credits his former AP Literature teacher and soccer coach, Jim Cross, for helping spark his love of English and for helping to inspire his career path.

“He had this passion for books and teaching poetry that I had just never seen before,” recalled Underwood. “Me and my angsty self at that time, really connected with the way that he saw poetry as a living thing, as a salve for the troubled soul, or even as a path to self-transformation. So I would read these poets and these books and he would talk about them in ways that really allowed me to make sense of myself.”

As the son of a teacher, Underwood spent countless hours in his mom’s classroom growing up. During his college years as a student at Cal State Long Beach, Underwood again drew inspiration from an English professor, Joe Potts, who helped shape his view on what it means to be a teacher.

“He was the one that really got me fired up about pedagogy,” Underwood explained. “The idea that teachers are artists and their content is their palette; the books they teach, the way that they teach, all those things are very creative processes that the teacher can bring into the classroom. And I really liked that idea. It was at that moment that I decided to go full force into English education in college and pursue my teaching credential.”

Underwood started his teaching career at Millikan back in 2006, as a 23-year-old fresh out of his student teaching program. He’s now in his 17th year on campus and has been inspiring his students the same way Mr. Cross did for him.

Underwood said he enjoys cultivating a classroom environment where students can discuss major issues affecting their everyday lives. He acknowledged that those discussions have evolved in the past few years due to the global pandemic and social unrest across the globe. Through literature, he’s helped students gain different perspectives on some of the big, complex issues they’re seeing in the world.

“The fantastic thing about teaching a humanities class is that it’s exactly the right place for a student to try to make sense of things that sometimes don’t make sense to them,” he explained. “I’ve seen students become much more serious about loss and grief, because it’s very possible that these students have seen much more of that over the last couple of years than they ever have before. … I’m in a really unique position to have these students ask these questions of themselves and to guide them through their own thinking using these texts.”

One of his former students, Astrid Quirarte, wrote a letter of support for Underwood winning Teacher of the Year while she was attending UC Berkeley to study molecular and cell biology. Her words spoke to Underwood’s dedication to his students, and also his willingness to incorporate contemporary issues into his curriculum.

“In all my years in school, I have never met a teacher as approachable and caring as Mr. Underwood,” 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 … 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.”

Underwood described the Teacher of the Year award as an “immense honor” but also—somewhat ironically—he struggled to put his emotions into words.

“It just melts my heart, I don’t know how else to explain it,” Underwood said. “Nothing, no amount of money can take the place of the words that Astrid wrote about me. It makes me realize that this is the right place to be.

“I’m exactly in the right place.”

Local history: No soap—Procter & Gamble’s Long Beach plant closed in 1988