Macomb teacher wins math award

Sharon Spikes, Macomb Public School teacher, has been selected as this year’s Mathematical Association of America Oklahoma Teacher of the Year at the high school level by the Oklahoma/Arkansas Section of the Mathematical Association of America (OK-AR MAA). Sharon was recognized at the annual section meeting banquet of the OK-AR MAA held at the campus of East Central University on March 31, 2023.

“My greatest joy in teaching is the lasting relationships I build with my students. I have a wall in my room that shows every student who has graduated since I’ve been at Macomb and we try to keep it updated with what they’re doing now,” said Spikes.

OK-AR MAA biennially recognizes three teachers in Oklahoma and three in Arkansas for their outstanding contributions to the mathematics education of their students. The honorees are selected from the pool of nominees on the basis of written submissions which include a
description of a special project or enrichment topic they have developed, their personal philosophy of teaching mathematics, and recommendations from a supervisor, a peer, and a student or parent. The MAA Teacher of the Year Award is presented to one teacher from each
of three levels—secondary, middle school, and elementary—from each of the two states.

When asked how she sees math being used by her students, Spikes responded, “I love when the students tell me how math impacts them in the real world. Whether it’s finding a job and dealing with taxes or dealing with purchasing a car .”

Since 1915, the Mathematical Association of America (MAA) has provided a forum for educators, students, professionals, and mathematics enthusiasts to share ideas, keep abreast of developments in the mathematical community, enhance their careers, and make new friends.
Today, the MAA is the largest professional society that focuses on mathematics accessible at the undergraduate level with more than 25,000 individuals and institutions taking advantage of its publications, programs, and resources. The membership of OK-AR MAA consists of members of the MAA residing in Oklahoma or Arkansas. Its membership is made up of educators, students, as well as others inside and outside of academia who are devoted to the advancement of the mathematical sciences, especially at the collegiate level.

“Just Go!”

Often teachers give so much of themselves to their students that there isn’t much left at the end of the day. Energy levels drop and stress increases. That’s where Capitol Hill High School teacher Jessica Dickinson found herself at the end of the school year in 2021.Dickinson decided it was time to make a change.  She walked into a CrossFit gym and hasn’t looked back.

Dickinson is no stranger to physical fitness. She played JV soccer for OBU while earning her undergraduate degree. But after several years in the classroom, and putting herself at the bottom of her priority list, Dickinson decided it was time to reclaim her health.

The changes she has seen in her life are more than physical. “CrossFit has given me more energy. It’s a great outlet for stress. Overall I just feel better,” she said, adding that after she changed her diet she saw the biggest difference. “Finding time can be hard,” she admits. Dickinson wears many hats at Capitol Hill. She teaches Sophomore English and Junior AP English, serves as Department Chair, is a mentor, Mastery Connect mentor, and Girls’ Soccer coach. She is currently taking night classes at OU to earn her PhD in Learning Sciences and studying for her Administrative Certification. “Luckily I live close to my gym.”

A typical day starts with her alarm sounding at 4:00 A.M., followed by CrossFit class at 5:00, and a quick shower before she begins her school day at 7:00. “My plan is first hour, so I eat breakfast then,” she adds. After afternoon athletics and games, she heads back to the gym for 90 minutes before heading to her evening classes or church.

Her new found energy is spent making her classroom feel welcoming, comfortable, and a safe environment for students to learn. “My favorite thing about teaching is when my students lead the discussions. That’s when I know they’re getting it.” She encourages them to always do their best.

Sometimes teachers need the same encouragement in their own life. When asked what advice she would give other teachers thinking about making physical fitness part of their daily routine, she responded, “Definitely find a class or a buddy to keep you accountable. But more importantly, just go!”

A Teacher On and Off the Field

When asked which he enjoys more, being in the classroom or being on the field, POE Board President Tim Whaley answers with ease, “I love being in the classroom.” Whaley began his teaching career 14 years ago in Texas. He first stepped into the classroom at Bray-Doyle, then Duncan. Whaley now works at Rush Springs where he teaches high school economics and history, middle school history, and is the head coach for track and cross-country.

Whaley says he was meant to teach. In high school Whaley had two teachers who had a major impact on his trajectory. “Those teachers were the sole reason I went to college,” he says. “They were able to identify my strengths. They encouraged me and pushed me to think of my future as more than what I knew. ” As a first-generation college student, those teachers made college seem like a real option for him. Today he is able to pay it back. “My favorite part of teaching is seeing the growth in students.”

As a lifelong learner, Whaley likes studying learning styles. “I enjoy putting organization to learning.” Whaley uses several strategies in his classroom like Cornell Notes and daily ‘I Can’ statements. The ‘I Can’ statement for today’s lesson was: I can list and discuss the 3 dictators in Europe during WWII. “We start the class reading the ‘I Can’ statement, and we will end the class by going around and giving everyone the opportunity to answer it.”

In addition to teaching and coaching, Whaley spends his free time as a high school football referee. During his 21 years wearing the black and white stripes, he has had the opportunity to ref two semi-final games and two state championships. “I view coaching as another vehicle to reach kids and teach them.”

Beyond his teaching and coaching duties, Whaley serves as President of the POE Board of Directors. “I’m a partner with POE. It’s not just an association I’m in.” As a Board Member he appreciates how our employees are working for our members daily. During a convention last summer, Whaley was able to meet leaders from sister organizations across the nation, and learn how those coalitions are working for students and their families. He also sees behind-the-scenes of the POE Government Affairs Team and the continual process of working with the Legislature. “Education is fluid; it’s changing. Policy that is being written now is determining what those changes will look like.”

In June Whaley and his wife Kim will celebrate five years of marriage. “We met when we were 18. College sweethearts.” But the timing wasn’t right. “We remained friends, and I eventually had to make an appointment with her to ask her to take me out of the friend zone.” Now the couple has two beautiful children, Reese age 8 and Noelle age 5, who they adopted after a period of fostering. The family loves to travel and experience life to the fullest.

Whether it’s being a dad, teaching, coaching, being a ref, or serving on Boards, Whaley wants to return the favor and show gratitude for the opportunities shown to him by those teachers who impacted his life.

From History Geek to NASA Nerd

Mary Jo Robertson has always loved math, but through new professional development opportunities, she has become a self-professed history geek. Thanks to the NASA Oklahoma Space Grant Consortium STELLAR Program, she proudly says, “It took 10 days out of my summer, but what I got in return is so much better. I’m now a NASA nerd.” 

In June 2022, Mary Jo Robertson saw a post on a Facebook page about a unique professional development opportunity and she decided to take a chance. “It was the day the application was due,” Robertson recalls. “I submitted my application at 11:30 before it was due at midnight.”

Robertson is in her 25th year of teaching at Fargo-Gage Public Schools in Northwest Oklahoma. While teaching 7th & 8th Grade Math and Social Studies, she is always looking for new ways to engage her students and herself in lifelong learning. So when an out-of-this-world opportunity presented itself, she jumped.

The chance paid off.  According to their website, the STELLAR (STEM Teachers Experience Linking Learners to Aerospace Research) program was created “to provide educators of all grades and subject areas with top-notch classroom resources to enhance hands-on STEM in the classroom and equip them with the necessary tools to empower our next generation of STEM thinkers and doers!”

The group of 16 educators meets from July to April. Members include pre-service teachers from various Oklahoma colleges, as well as current classroom teachers.  “The grant is set up for teachers in three districts in the Oklahoma City area, but last year they didn’t have anyone apply from those districts so they opened it up statewide,” Robertson said.

STELLAR program participants have monthly challenges they must complete as part of the program curriculum. The challenges take 1-3 hours and vary from listening to a podcast and writing a paper about the topic, to stargazing and journaling about it. In addition to the monthly challenges, participants attend a 10-day hands-on training program and two weekend sessions all on the OSU campus, and help host a recruitment table for future participants.  Additionally participants are invited to a VIP trip to the Johnson Space Center at the conclusion of the program.  All expenses are covered by the Oklahoma Space Grant Consortium.

One of the highlights of the program for Robertson was helping to fly a plane. “I hate flying, but that was probably one of my favorite things we have done.” She continued, “After I flew, I was standing on the wing waiting to change places with my classmate so they could fly.  I asked someone to take my picture.  When I look back at that picture, it makes me smile. I didn’t realize the joy I had at that moment.”

Robertson concedes that looking for additional PD is not something that all teachers are interested in, but she hopes others will search out interesting opportunities. “Going into this I knew I would struggle and would be way out of my comfort zone, but that’s what I ask of my students every day. It has been good for me to be in this position, to empathize with my kids more.”

For more information on the STELLAR program, visit their website at

Moore High School Educator Born to Teach

Ask Kelly Leiter why she teaches and she’ll say she was born for teaching.

In her first job interview, Mrs. Leiter recalls the principal showing her a large stack of applications. The principal asked, “Why should I hire you instead of these other candidates?”

“They want a job,” Mrs. Leiter said. “I was born to teach.”

Needless to say, she got the job and has been teaching for 38 years. The upcoming school year would be her 40th year in the classroom; however, she took off a year to be with her dad and a year for personal leave.

The Moore High School Reading teacher remembers going to school as a young girl, believing she was the teacher. “I don’t remember a time when I didn’t help teach. I would follow my teacher around and pick up the books. The teacher would get a reading group together, and I would get three or four students together. My teacher told my mom, ‘Please tell Kelly that I am the teacher.’ Later, in fifth grade I remember telling my teacher how to help students who had difficulty learning.

“My earliest memory of reading and helping kids who have some sort of difficulties was at a young, young age. I was five years old and there was a little boy at our church who was non-verbal and I wanted to help him. I drew pictures of a cup and a plate, for instance, and gave them to him to put on a string and he began to communicate with his parents.”

The Love of Reading

The first part of each semester with Mrs. Leiter is devoted to enhancing the students’ reading skills. Students have to write a word, know the definition and use it in a sentence. “We hit the reading skills pretty hard and then we dive into a novel, reading about 50-70 pages a week. In class, we talk about the assigned reading and do research (on history referenced in the book’s time period) so the students are fully invested in the characters.”

Over a two-year period, her high school students read “Salt to the Sea” and “Between Shades of Gray” by award-winning American novelist Ruta Sepetys. These beautiful works of historical fiction take place during and at the end of WWII. In one novel, a young Lithuanian girl and her family endure the harsh reality of Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union regime. In the other novel, her cousin and three others are drawn together by fate and the indelible desire for love and freedom. To escape Germany they find refuge on a ship, the Wilhelm Gustloff.  History comes to life on these pages and for the first time, many of her students experience the love of reading.

“I create an entire experience for the students, complete with a map and research opportunities so they can gather facts. With the added information, the book now holds meaning for them,” Mrs. Leiter said. “In class, I set the stage with music while we read. Then students write from their hearts about the story.”

While exploring the novel, her students also learn something about themselves. At the end of the year, each student does some self-reflection and writes about how they see themselves by answering the question, “What is the truth about your life?”

“I am a powerful and loved young woman,” writes one student.

Another adds, “I am a trustworthy young man.”

“It’s the moments when you see the light come on,” said Mrs. Leiter, almost teary-eyed as she reaches for a tissue. “The moments you know when there has been a connection. It is an amazing feeling. That’s what you live for in the classroom.

Helping Others

“I could have retired in 2013,” said Mrs. Leiter, who has taught kids and grandkids or former students. “I love school so much that I went back to school so that I could forever be at school. I’m not through. I’m not finished. I’m not done. I have asked myself what life would be like if I didn’t come to school. There is not a world where school isn’t a part of it.”

Her classroom is decorated with reminders of what makes a good teacher. One particular sign that hangs in front of her classroom describes Mrs. Leiter perfectly: “A teacher is a special friend whose love and kindness never end.”

That love and kindness has trickled over into helping children understand how one internalizes the words people speak about us.

“I see the effects of low self esteem in class,” Mrs. Leiter said. “They experience negative self-talk, such as ‘Everyone else is reading and I can’t.’ There is so much negative self talk, and the students internalize it. We need to give kids back the power and not allow what others say about them to have the power.

“My son, Jonathan, had been dealing with bullying when he was six. He would come into my classroom and cry about being bullied,” she said. “I gave him some unconventional wisdom and told him, ‘You are just a tree.’ That night when I tucked him in bed, he asked why I called him a tree. I knew he needed to take his own power back. He turned around and said, “I am not a tree.”

Discovering who you are sometimes comes from who you are not, and that was the impetus for her book, “I Am Not A Tree.” She based the story on the real-life experiences with her son and has shared it in many classrooms, workshops and seminars throughout North America to help others overcome bullying. In 2000 Jonathan was killed in a car accident, and the book was published in his memory in December 2021.

Her story and how she helped bullied kids through her experience with her son was featured earlier this year on News9. For more information about “I Am Not A Tree,” you can email Mrs. Leiter at If you would like to purchase “I Am Not A Tree,” please scan the following QR code. A study guide and student engagement addition are free with the purchase of the book and an email request to Mrs. Leiter.