While a student at Joliet Junior College, then-psychology major Matthew Lawrence ’00 was asked to introduce a topic to his classmates as though they were third-graders. The assignment turned out to be a transformative one that set him on the path to becoming an elementary educator.

“When I got up there it just felt really natural and fun, and I got a great response from my classmates,” he said.

Lawrence switched his major to education that very same day, and within another year he was taking classes at Illinois State.

These days, he is busy engaging fifth and sixth grade students in math and science at Waikiki Elementary in Honolulu on the island of Oahu.

In October, Lawrence was recognized as the Hawaii Teacher of the Year at the governor’s mansion. He was chosen among the state’s approximately 11,000 educators.

Lawrence said he owes much of his success to the education he received at Illinois State, which not only developed his teaching philosophy, but proved invaluable in his pursuit of National Board Certification.

“All the books I gathered up for best practices in 2011 were things I learned at Illinois State,” he said. “It was current in 1999, and it’s still in practice today. So the certification process validated a lot of the work that I was doing for the previous 10 years.”

As a native to the Midwest, Lawrence was originally introduced to the prospect of becoming an educator in Hawaii through a student teaching experience led by Professor Emeritus Sam Mungo and his wife Sharon.

“(Sam) painted the picture of 80 degree mornings with a light mist on the way to the bus stop for student teaching,” Lawrence said. “But what also drew me here was the chance to teach in a multicultural, urban setting.”

The Mungos stayed on the island throughout the semester and immersed the teacher candidates in Hawaiian culture. There were trips to missionaries and the Polynesian Cultural Center, and throughout it all Lawrence and many of his fellow candidates received the chance to experience life in the minority. Lawrence said the makeup of the island is approximately 25 percent Pacific Islander, 25 percent Caucasian, 25 percent Asian, and 25 percent of mixed ethnic heritage.

The experience had a profound impact on him, and by semester’s end Lawrence had made the decision to stay.

“Living here has exposed me to various cultures that I probably would not have encountered in the Midwest,” he said. “As a result, I feel I’ve become more aware and respectful of peoples’ differences due to their culture and am now more open to looking at situations from a broader range of perspectives.”

Over the past 12 years, he has built a life for himself, his wife of seven years, Jessika, and his nine-week-old daughter, Lily Ann.

Matthew Lawrence and baby Lily Ann Lawrence in Hawaii.

Matthew Lawrence and baby Lily Ann.

At times, Lawrence has been challenged in his craft more than he ever expected. With a high number of English learners immigrating to Honolulu from all over the world, he has used technology and available resources to support student learning. By researching and utilizing instructional software available in multiple languages—and calling upon the assistance of student translators when necessary—he avoided “sit and listen” situations for English learners.

Lawrence said his teaching style can be best described as constructivist. He challenges his students to explore ideas and concepts for themselves without telling them exactly how to do so. When necessary, he jumps in to further guide their learning.

As a math and science teacher, this approach has translated into unique projects motivated by students’ interests. He recalls one sixth-grader whose original idea was to build a soapbox racer.

“We started talking more about ‘What if it had power? What kind of power could it have?’” said Lawrence. “And that opened up a discussion of today’s conundrum with fossil fuels, and if we should pull a lawnmower engine off or should we do something different?”

Together, they decided to build a solar car. His students have also constructed a climbing wall and created a bicycle generator that kept his classroom lights on during a power outage.

Lawrence’s teaching style is a far cry from his the elementary-level education he received at a Catholic school in Ohio.

“The environment involved sitting in rows and looking at the chalkboard all day,” he said. “I didn’t really enjoy my school experience. When I was studying to become a teacher, I decided that I would give students a more positive experience.”

For several years, Lawrence has passed on his passion and expertise for teaching as a mentor for University of Hawaii candidates.

“I tell them that it is extremely important to work interdependently with their colleagues whenever possible,” he said. “Be open to their insight, and be open to getting to know the parents of students better, as well.”

Lawrence’s teacher of the year honor demonstrates his commitment to the field. He is among the tens of thousands of dedicated Illinois State educators who make valuable contributions all around the country, and the world.

And as he looks over the Pacific Ocean to reflect on his journey, he can’t help but smile at a seemingly ordinary psychology assignment that changed his life forever.