Connections: Linking Talented Educators
Connections: Linking Talented Educators

Spotlight: Michael Tapee (AR '23)

May 3, 2024

In Springdale, Arkansas, math teacher and Herobotics coach Michael Tapee (AR ’23) strives to give students tools to be the leaders of tomorrow. "Their critical thinking skills and self-image as world changers lead them to dream big about what they can accomplish." His Milken Award kicked off our 2023 season on October 3, 2023, at Hellstern Middle School.

Milken Family Foundation: How have students responded since your Milken Educator Award surprise?

Michael Tapee (AR '23): Students have continued to be so excited about the Award. I get frequent questions regarding what I’ve done with the money … which is pretty funny. My hope is that they feel the weight of the Award as I do. I hope that it spurs them on to great things and to positively impact their communities as they grow into adulthood.

MFF: Who are your role models as an educator?

Michael: There are so many people I look up to as an educator. The authors and educational leaders Anthony Muhammad, Luis Cruz, and Tim Brown are three that come to mind. Their high standards for all students and teachers and firm belief that public schools can be a place where all students are equipped to achieve their dreams give me hope and encouragement to fight hard for an excellent future.

However, there is another group more personal and closer to home who serve as my biggest source of inspiration. It is perhaps a bit cliche, but I mean this with all of my heart: The biggest role models in my career are the educators and administrators at Hellstern Middle School, both past and present. I love my job and I love the place where I work. It truly is the best place in the world. I am surrounded by teachers and leaders who put kids first and work tirelessly to improve our school and community. The way we all work together to care for and push students forward makes me so proud. I would welcome anybody from any school in the world to come to Hellstern Middle School and see us in action. Added bonus: we always manage to have a ton of fun in the process!

I could list so many names of individuals at Hellstern who mean the world to me, but I would be remiss not to mention a few specifically: The members of our Guiding Coalition consistently inspire me with their professionalism and dedication to our school as a whole, as well as their innovative efforts to fully implement the PLC process for our students and teachers. Our leadership team — Dr. Allison Byford, Misty Harrison, Ben Thompson, Sarah Wilson, and Trina Pergeson — are leaders who go above and beyond to mentor and encourage me as I grow my skills as a leader and teacher. They have become my friends, mentors, and go-to sources for wisdom and ideas about all things education. Finally, I was blessed to serve on an interdisciplinary team with the unmatched Cassie Kautzer and Lauren Richardson at the beginning of my career. These two teachers are incredible at their craft. Serving alongside them will forever be some of the best years of my career. I owe them so much of my personal and professional growth and would not be the person I am today without them.

MFF: What experiences did you have in the classroom as a student that shaped who you are as an educator?

Michael: I believe my interest in becoming an educator was nurtured early on by several key teachers I had growing up in the Garland Independent School District in Texas. There are truly too many to list from elementary school through high school, but I will share a few standouts. Mr. Corey Bankston, my seventh grade science teacher and seventh to eighth grade robotics coach was a mentor and encouragement to middle-school me. He taught me so much about science, but also gave me opportunities to lead and learn what it means to grow into a mature adult. I will never forget his challenging tests and assignments that showed me difficult learning is worthwhile learning, nor will I forget the hours of after-school robotics practice learning about what it looks like to be a leader (and a scientist!). In addition, my high school band directors Bob Beshears, Jacob Ramirez, and Matt Casstevens instilled in me a love of music that I carry to this day. They showed me how to be a holistic, lifelong learner. Even more importantly, their mentorship, encouragement and investment helped me grow in ways I will never fully realize. If I am even half of the teacher they are, I will count myself blessed.

MFF: Tell us about your first year of teaching. 

Michael: My first year of teaching was awesome! There are so many memories. My students are, of course, the biggest standout. They were awesome! We learned a ton, had so much fun, and they were so very patient as I learned the ropes of the profession. I was blessed to work alongside other incredible sixth grade math teachers who helped me lesson-plan and plan for effective instruction. I was also encouraged by an interdisciplinary team of teachers who helped me care for our students more holistically.

There were so many memories made that year. I remember lots of games of basketball with students during “social time.” Thank goodness I teach sixth grade because my physical advantage is the only thing that keeps me even slightly competitive. I will also never forget the moment our first-ever robotics team made it to state. We were so proud and had no idea of the adventure that lay ahead of us as our program continued to develop. That first team of students set the trajectory for our Herobotics program over the coming years and I am so grateful for their pioneering efforts. Mostly, I remember the days of learning alongside my students in my classroom. I remember them discussing, questioning, and reasoning through difficult mathematics together and I remember them growing as people and mathematicians. It was an honor every day to be their teacher. They are a large part of setting me on a trajectory toward where I am now.

MFF: What do you hope students remember from their time with you?

Michael: My biggest hope is that my students remember that I believe they are awesome, smart, and heroic. I believe they have immeasurable value just by being who they are. I believe they can learn and accomplish challenging things. I believe that they have the potential to change the world for the better. I hope they see these beliefs as unshakeable, even when they make mistakes. I hope that these ideas lay the foundation for them to become lifelong learners and pursue their dreams. Hopefully, they will remember some math and engineering concepts, too! I try to create a culture in my classroom that emphasizes that my students are mathematicians and engineers. It is my hope that students see their incredible capacity to learn big things and solve problems, even when those problems pose a challenge.

MFF: You co-created and developed Hellstern's Herobotics program. Can you tell us a bit about the inspiration behind this project? How do you think the program contributes to participating students’ success in the classroom?

Michael: I would actually say that the seed for Herobotics began when I was in elementary school and got to attend several summers of LEGO robotics camp. I loved the challenge of building, inventing, problem-solving, and working on a team. This continued when I was a member of my middle school robotics team for two years in seventh and eighth grades. When I interviewed for my job at Hellstern Middle School the principal asked me if I would be interested in starting a FIRST LEGO League team and I was hooked! The inspiration behind the program has been the same from the beginning: to empower students to change the world. The Herobotics students themselves said it themselves when I asked them to craft a mission statement for our program:

"Herobotics exists to show the hard work and incredible teamwork of our engineering family with the intention to change the world while having the time of our lives. We put the 'Hero' in Herobotics."

I love hearing what they believe our program is about. It’s about giving them space to tackle challenging, non-trivial problems while learning to think like engineers. They get to do this in a team sport environment and they experience authentic assessment of their work through the competitions we attend. This has had a huge impact on my students.

I have seen Herobotics members grow tremendously in their understanding of what productive collaboration looks like. They see how really big problems need a streamlined team effort to truly make progress and they learn to value each other’s strengths and weaknesses. They also grow in critical thinking as they learn to apply the engineering process to iterate on their work. We build their research skills as they learn how to scour reliable sources and work with experts to explore big questions. In addition, Herobotics pushes students to develop clear communication and public speaking skills. They present to a panel of judges for a 30-minute session of prepared remarks and Q&A. Seeing them explain their work each year is incredible. I love watching kids step out of their comfort zone and speak like professionals.

Herobotics gives a chance for kids to compete and learn how hard work can pay off. Often, it leads to incredible victory, and sometimes even hard work can end in disappointment. In Herobotics, we learn how to deal with adversity and measure our work beyond simply whether we get a trophy or not. All of this builds a diverse skill set in my students that is unmatched in most other academic programs. I have seen students take the lessons they have learned in Herobotics and apply them to many different academic pursuits, not just engineering. Their critical thinking skills and self-image as world changers lead them to dream big about what they can accomplish.

MFF: What advice would you share with people who are interested in becoming teachers?

Michael: For people considering becoming educators, I would encourage them to passionately pursue professional growth. Being a good teacher is not just about loving kids. It isn’t just about being a positive force in the classroom. It’s not simply creating cool assignments for students to complete. Education is a science and it is an art. To be a great teacher, you have to do the work of digging into the research and learning how to practice your craft with excellence. This happens through the intentional pursuit of professional development and mentorship followed by strategic application of new ideas in the classroom.

It’s also important that people hear the truth about the job of an educator. Being a teacher is the best job in the world; it is also unbelievably challenging. There is virtually no other job I can think of that has the same constant pressure and never-ending onslaught of complex problems that need to be solved. Rather than this being a deterrent, I think it should actually be an opportunity. In teaching, you find a career that challenges you to think boldly every day and every single day makes a difference. Teaching quickly becomes a calling instead of just a career. The opportunity to positively impact the future of young people brings a joy that I can’t fully describe. Anyone entering education will find a career that brings exciting professional growth wrapped around memories that will last a lifetime. I can think of no greater profession.

Watch our interview with Michael Tapee (AR '23) on the day of his Milken Award notification:


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