For 30 years, the Milken Family Foundation has been identifying and rewarding top educators across the country. Earlier this month, an English and college prep teacher in Arlington earned the distinguished Milken Educator Award — and $25,000.
Like many teachers and past Milken winners, however, money does not motivate Jennifer Fuller.
“I love kids,” Fuller said. “And I love getting to have a piece of their life. They change who I am, they make me a better person, and I love getting to spend time with them. I try to have fun along the way.”
Having fun is one key ingredient of a quality classroom experience, experts say, as is engagement. Stephany Esparza, a 16-year-old student at Arlington Collegiate High School, said Fuller shows a personal interest in how she’s doing.
“She really cares about her students,” Esparza said. “She’ll do anything to help them. She just wants us to succeed. And she’ll take her time out of the day just to make sure that we’re successful, and we’re doing good in our classes.”
Encouraging these successful teachers is one goal of the California-based Milken Family Foundation, according Jane Foley, the organization’s vice president. She won this award 23 years ago.
“The cash is wonderful,” Foley said. “But it’s not about the money. For the educators, we’re doing the job that we’re sort of born to do. You realize your job is very important, that people are watching. You’re meant to stay in education.“
More than money
Southern Methodist University professor Milan Sevak studies great teachers and what it takes to keep them in education. He likes Milken for finding and rewarding the best. But he’s disappointed.
“I think we’re working within a broken system,” Sevak said. “In some ways I think [the Milken Awards] highlight the broken system. . . that we’re recognizing these teachers on a one-time basis because we lack the system that compensates teachers appropriately on a broad scale.”
Sevak said some districts, including Dallas, Baltimore and Denver, are trying to fix the system by compensating top teachers based on merit, and less on seniority. He said retention also requires intangibles not just more money.
“Compensation is one factor, not the only factor, right?” Sevak said. “It definitely goes back to the leadership, the culture they’re creating, [that] principals are creating on their campuses. Teachers want to work with other professionals that are like them…that are in it for the passion, for the impact they can have on students.”
Passion for change
Dallas elementary teacher Rogelio Garcia thought he was an OK teacher. Then, he won the Milken Educator Award in 2010.
“It’s just special, and I just didn’t realize the impact that it made, but other teachers and principals started looking at me a little bit different. It was kind of interesting,” Garcia said with a laugh.
He realized he’d become a role model not just for his students, but for other educators. Teachers and principals came to watch — and learn — from the expert in the field. They could see what he did. They may not have sensed why he did it.
“I mean my passion is to change family history,” Garcia said. “You know, especially Hispanic, and although odds are stacked against them, even so they’re the first to graduate from a college. It changes everything for the family.”
Everything. It changes the entire future of a family. The biggest payoff for Garcia is knowing it may have begun in his classroom.