Portland State Magazine Fall 2022

TEACHING THROUGH TROUBLED TIMES Flexible, creative leadership earns PSU grad a Milken Educator Award AUBREY FLOWERS’ tenure as a school principal in Tulsa, Oklahoma, has been anything but typical. Since making the jump from classroom teacher to principal in 2017, Flowers ’03 has had to navigate the challenge of renaming the school—then Robert E. Lee Elementary—in the aftermath of violent white supremacist protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, a process that took three tries to get right. What else? A statewide teacher walkout, a 100-year flooding event, and a global pandemic. She embraced each change, uncertainty, and challenge that came with the new role. The leadership she displayed through it all earned her the Milken Educator Award earlier this year.The program, considered the Oscars of teaching, recognizes top educators across the country and comes with a $25,000 cash prize. “Aubrey demonstrates unwavering respect for every child in her care,”Oklahoma’s public schools superintendent Joy Hofmeister said. “As an innovative leader who inspires and empowers her teachers to meet the individual learning needs of each student, she nurtures a school culture centered on creativity, patience, and growth.” Flowers, who graduated from Portland State with a bachelor’s degree in social science and minor in elementary education, says she proudly wears two hats: school principal and mom. By day, she leads a building of 500 families. At night, she’s a mom to five kids from toddler to tween. But in March 2020, when schools suddenly transitioned to distance learning in response to COVID-19, the line between her work and home life became more blurred than ever. “I got to sit in the seat of what our parents were trying to go through, and it was a mess,” she said, recalling constant interruptions, WiFi crashes, and teachers’ best intentions for their classes not going to plan. “At that point, our focus was just on staying connected … and making sure that, in the unknown, all of our families were safe and had what they needed.” When she was tasked with coming up with three plans for the start of the 2020-21 school year—a continuation of remote learning, a return to in-person classes, or a hybrid of the two—Flowers knew that small learning groups would be key. “It took some real creativity and flexibility on the part of my team, in addition to some major trust,” she said. With input from teachers and parents, a plan took shape. Teachers were reassigned to grade-level teams, each teaching one subject across two grades. At the start of each week, families received recorded daily lessons for each subject. For 45 minutes each Monday, Tuesday, Alumni Life Students congratulate principal Aubrey Flowers (center) following the surprise award announcement . 34 // PORTLAND STATE MAGAZINE