School & District Management

The ‘Oscar Winners’ of Teaching Share Their Secrets for Success

By Kate Stoltzfus — January 05, 2018 6 min read
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For more than three decades, the Milken Family Foundation has recognized excellence in teaching, leadership, and student engagement with an award that’s become known as the “Oscars of Teaching.” The foundation, along with panelists chosen by state departments of education, annually selects several dozen early-to-mid-career educators across the country as recipients of the Milken Educator Award—which comes with recognition in a surprise ceremony at each educator’s school, a $25,000 prize, and professional-development opportunities. The honor will be given to 44 teachers and principals during the 2017-18 school year, with 31 award doled out as of this week.

For the second year in a row, we asked the latest crop of Milken Educators about their secrets for success in the classroom. This year, we wanted to know the words of wisdom that have made a difference to the 2017-18 winners, and reached out by email with the following question: What’s the best teaching advice you’ve ever been given?

Many of the educators said guidance around building relationships with students sticks with them the most, as being attuned to the challenges and successes in students’ lives is just as important as academics and classroom experimentation.

Here’s what the awardees had to say:

Aaron Ferguson, director and teacher, Pacifica High School’s Academy of Business, Garden Grove, Calif.:

“The best teaching advice I’ve ever heard came from my education professor Mike McCambridge at California Lutheran University: Don’t just know your students, love and treat your students as people. They each have their own stories and situations, and it is the responsibility of teachers to put the time and effort in to learn about each of their students.”

Angela Boxie, 6th grade math teacher, Edgar Martin Middle School, Lafayette, La.:

“Gain a rapport with students. This advice was given to me by my mother, who is now a retired teacher of 37 years. This advice has been helpful in my career and has ensured successful behaviors in my classroom. I show students I not only care about their academic success, but I am also concerned about their personal well-being. By showing interest in their lives, students feel accepted in the classroom. Once this has taken place, students are more willing to reach goals that have been set.”

Dale J. Adamson, 8th grade leader, algebra teacher, and STEM Coordinator, Howard D. McMillan Middle School, Miami:

“Failure is the first step toward success. Just as we encourage students to take academic risks, educators must take professional risks to grow. If you find your classroom getting stagnant, never be afraid to try something new. It doesn’t always go exactly as planned, but you will never know how effective a new lesson or strategy will be until you try it with students. This advice has helped me immensely with student engagement and achievement. The unpredictability of my classroom keeps students excited, engaged, and ready to learn.”

Dan Adler, 6th grade science teacher, UP Academy Leonard, Lawrence, Mass.:

“Good teachers reflect constantly. There is always something new to try in the classroom and with scholars. Sometimes you succeed, and sometimes ... you don’t. Remember what worked. Write it down, hang on to it, incorporate it into your teaching toolkit, use it in the service of kids and learning. Take what didn’t work, and be brave enough to think about why, and how you can adjust moving forward.”

Debreon Davis, principal, Edmond North High School, Edmond, Okla.:

“Change only moves at the speed of relationships. As educators, we all want to have a meaningful impact on our students’ lives, and this must begin with us taking the time to build relationships. When our actions show we are invested in the lives of our students, their families, and the culture of our school, all other outcomes fall in line. We all work harder and push ourselves out of comfort zones when we feel valued and known. We must prioritize knowing our students to learn how to best serve them.”

Heidi Albin, science teacher, Complete High School Maize, Maize, Kan.:

“Academics aren’t the most important things we teach. It is essential that we teach life, well-being, wisdom, and character. Academic subjects are simply the conduit through which we teach what matters most. I began applying for therapy dogs and for grants to fund the project after asking students what would make our school better. The unanimous response was, ‘A dog!’ Kinsey’s presence has had a significant impact on the students and staff. She has helped prevent anxiety attacks and emotional breakdowns, and when they do occur, they are much less severe.”

Jennifer Fuller, 11th grade English teacher, Arlington Collegiate High School, Arlington, Texas:

“The best advice I’ve been given as a teacher is to remember that forming strong relationships with students is what truly makes a classroom successful. Once students know that you love them and really believe in them, they will be unstoppable. Every student needs someone who truly believes in them, but some take more convincing than others that you are truly in their corner. It’s worth taking as much time as it takes to convince each child that you are that person.”

Jordan McGaughey, 10th grade American history teacher and instructional support specialist, Seckman High School, Imperial, Mo.:

“The best piece of advice I’ve ever been given by a mentor teacher is to always center planning and instruction around what is best for students. Any lesson or activity that allows students to engage more deeply and understand content more personally are the lessons and activities that teachers should implement in classrooms.”

Katherine Watkins, 11th and 12th grade English teacher, Millington Central High School, Millington, Tenn.:

“I have learned through trial and error that I can maximize and safeguard the time and energy I give to my students by establishing strict boundaries regarding the hours of the day I reserve for myself. Without disciplined routines for self-care/self-preservation (i.e., making time for exercise, proper nutrition, sleep, family, and recreation), quality instruction would be unsustainable. Though it can often feel like the work we’ve been tasked with requires superhuman effort and commitment, the only way to avoid burnout is to acknowledge your own limitations and manage your time in ways that promote balance and well-being.”

Maria DeBruin, AP chemistry teacher, Brick Memorial High School, Brick, N.J.:

“Maya Angelou said, ‘I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.’ So, be the teacher that isn’t afraid to go off topic to learn more about your students. Be the teacher that attends your students’ after-school activities. Be the teacher that purposely goes to your student’s check-out lane at the grocery store. Be the teacher that writes a handwritten note of encouragement when a student is sad. Be the teacher that isn’t afraid to love, because when you do, you will find that you and your students will succeed in the classroom.”

Ryan James, 8th grade civics teacher, Lucille Brown Middle School, Richmond, Va.:

“A piece of advice that was given to me from Mr. Britt, a former assistant superintendent: He said to remain my unique self in the classroom and to build as many relationships as possible with students and colleagues.”

Theresa Cross, instructional coach, Alice M. Harte Charter School, New Orleans:

“The best teaching advice I received was from Trenise Duvernay, who asked me to write down the name of my favorite teacher, explain why he or she was my favorite, and then replicate the qualities of this teacher in my own instruction. I wrote down Mr. Iammarino—my high school physics teacher—because he strategically sequenced each unit to build skills along with conceptual understanding and assessed our understanding with a real-life experiment as well as a test. Every skill he taught us had to be applied to a real-life task. Ever since that day, I have created a real-life project for each unit I teach, which has allowed my students to make connections between mathematical concepts and the world around them.”

For more advice, listen to the 2017 State Teachers of the Year share their education epiphanies.

The responses have been edited for clarity.

Photo credits: Milken Family Foundation

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.