Farmington teacher achieves dream of competing on ‘Wheel of Fortune’

By: Charity Meier | Farmington Press | Published February 6, 2024

 Tiffiney Lee, a fifth grade teacher at Forest Elementary School in Farmington, smiles as she competes in the game show “Wheel of Fortune.”

Tiffiney Lee, a fifth grade teacher at Forest Elementary School in Farmington, smiles as she competes in the game show “Wheel of Fortune.”

Photo provided by Carol Kaelson/Wheel of Fortune, © 2023 Califon Productions, Inc.


FARMINGTON — A teacher in the Farmington Public School District recently achieved one of her lifelong dreams: being a contestant on the game show “Wheel of Fortune,” and meeting Pat Sajek and Vanna White.

Tiffiney Lee has been a teacher for 24 years, 22 of them in the Farmington Public School District. She has taught at several schools in the district over the years, including East and Warner middle schools, where she taught math. She has now been at Forest Elementary for seven years, where she teaches fifth grade.

“I’m like a dinosaur,” she joked.

Lee grew up watching the show and is an avid fan, though her daughter hadn’t even heard of the show prior to Lee being named a contestant. Unbeknownst to her family, Lee started applying to be a contestant at age 18, along with her best friend, when they were in college.

“I knew this was something we watched all the time growing up with our grandmother, but I didn’t think she would actually apply and actually make it,” said Lee’s sister, Traci Deriso-Buckley. “So, it just shows that dreams do come true if you just have patience and persistence and believe.”

Last summer, Lee heard of the casting call for the show via an email from the “Wheel of Fortune” Wheel Watchers Club, and she applied. She said that two rounds of auditions were held in September, but she had to wait a month to find out if she had made it onto the show.

“They left me in misery for a whole month, because I didn’t hear anything,” said Lee. “Everybody here at Forest was like, ‘Did you hear anything? Did you hear anything?’ Because they all knew (about the audition), and then finally I got a congratulations email.”

Lee said she flew out to Los Angeles for the taping at Sony Pictures Studios in Culver City, California, accompanied by her daughter, Brooke, and Deriso-Buckley just before Thanksgiving.

She said the taping itself took a day. The most challenging part for her was simply getting past her nerves, but once she started winning some money she said she was “good to go.”

“The gym teacher (at Forest), Mr. (Jonathon) Kandes, he showed me — it’s the wrong thing to do — but he showed me the bloopers from game shows … and I watched it like a crazy person. So when I was there, I was like, ‘Tiffiney, don’t make it on the bloopers. Don’t make it on the bloopers. Don’t say anything crazy.’”

Although Lee said she was nervous, Deriso-Buckley said Lee appeared to be “very relaxed, like she was having fun.”

“She said she was sweating bullets down her back, but she was cool as a cucumber,” Deriso-Buckley said.

According to Lee, the wheel itself is heavy and was difficult to spin, but she was told not to focus on the wheel, but rather the puzzle itself.

“It was hard to concentrate on (the puzzle) with all the excitement, and then there’s a live audience,” said Lee. “Then Pat Sajek standing next to you. Like, that in and of itself is hard to keep your composure, you know.”

Deriso-Buckley described her sister as a “puzzle worker.” She said they used to do a lot of jigsaw puzzles growing up and that Lee loves to play Wordle. She said her sister prepared for the game show during the flight to LA by playing word games and doing test puzzles.

“She loves to challenge her mind and do puzzles,” Deriso-Buckley said.

However, according to Deriso-Buckley, it was Lee’s lack of knowledge in the kitchen that proved challenging for her as she got stuck on the phrase  “elbow macaroni.”

She did quite well on the show, winning a trip to Barbados and $63,150 in cash, and her sister and daughter then joined her onstage to celebrate. Lee said the hardest part was not letting people know how well she did until the show aired Dec. 29.

”I kept it a secret from my family and everybody, people here at Forest. My friends were like, ‘If you won, blink twice.’ They were like, ‘She’s smiling today. She must have won,’” Lee said. “It was a hard secret to keep, but it was so much fun.”

In celebration of the premiere of her episode, Lee’s parents hosted a watch party at their home for friends, family and coworkers. Deriso-Buckly said people were watching the episode from every room in the house. She said that sometimes, you could tell that the TVs were off sync as you would hear an excited roar from another room. Deriso-Buckley said their mother was on the edge of her seat with her hands covering her eyes.

Lee said that being a teacher, especially of young children, helped her with the show as she has a sound knowledge of phonics rules, which helped her to choose letters. She said that it was also helpful to be older, because of the phrases that they used on the show.

Lee said she has a year to take the trip and plans to go to Barbados this summer. As for her cash winnings, she plans to use some to help pay for her son’s tuition at her alma mater, Michigan State University, where he is in his second year.

“Tuition is killing us. So I know part of it I will spend on his tuition, and the other part I think I am just going to save,” Lee said.

She said she would definitely recommend that anyone who has ever thought about being on a game show should go ahead and do it.

“Even if you think it’s crazy, like, do it,” said Lee. “It was so much fun. I got to meet some good people.”