A third-grade teacher at Battle Academy received a surprise award and $25,000 at a school assembly Tuesday morning.
Katelyn Baker is the recipient of the Milken Educator Award—a nationally recognized award from the Milken Family Foundation. According to a news release, the award has been called the "Oscars of Teaching." The award includes national recognition, a trip to New Orleans to meet other Milken Award winners and $25,000.
To keep this all a surprise, the schoolwide assembly was billed as a visit from Tennessee Education Commissioner Dr. Candice McQueen to commend the school's dedication to student learning.
Halfway through the assembly, Milken Educator Awards Senior Vice President Dr. Jane Foley took to the podium to speak about who she was and why she was there. The more she spoke about the Milken Family Foundation and the award, the more you could see the excited but puzzled looks on teachers' and students' faces.
Foley brought six students up to the podium with her. Matt Marlatt, a 2009 recipient, handed each student a card with a symbol or number on it. The first three students held up a cash symbol, a two and a five. With the cards now reading $25, Marlatt handed a zero to each child, one at a time, until the cards read $25,000. Kids on the gymnasium floor popped up in excitement, and teachers looked around the room smiling at one another.
Then, in Oscars fashion, Foley read the winning name from an envelope, announcing the recipient of the award. Baker looked shocked as she slowly stood from her chair to approach the podium. The entire room stood in ovation, and some of her fellow teachers even had tears in their eyes.
"It's just nice to be appreciated, just to know that people are watching and appreciate the hard work teachers do," Baker said. "I'm definitely still shocked and so appreciative that it's me."
Baker is the only Milken Educator Award recipient for Tennessee this year, and the 33rd and final honoree named nationwide for 2016–2017.
"It has been amazing to watch her transformation from a beginning teacher to where she is now," Battle Academy Principal Saunya Goss said. "She's just in her sixth year of education, so it's wonderful, and I couldn't think of a better person for it to happen to."
Hamilton County Department of Education Interim Superintendent Dr. Kirk Kelly said he is honored the Milken Family Foundation has noticed the exceptional education efforts in Hamilton County.
"We put an emphasis on great teachers [and] great leaders here in Hamilton County, " Kelly said after the assembly. "It is gratifying the Milken Educator Award is acknowledging our efforts on the national stage."
Along with reading, math, science and social studies, Baker's third-graders learn another very important skill: how to critique each other's work. Baker acts as the facilitator as students share their work in front of the class, then listens as their peers offer both compliments and suggestions for improvement. Baker believes she creates a safe environment where her students know they can trust her and each other, according to a news release.
Baker also provides students "menus" from which they can choose their activities and offers multiple assessment options and exit tasks. Under her guidance and management, students work independently, stay organized and engaged, and self-assess their learning continuously. As a result, Baker’s students, at all learning levels, show consistently high growth, the news release said.
"We are so proud of Ms. Baker's accomplishments," Goss said. "She is a shining example of the environment that we have created here at Battle Academy that produces great teachers and great leaders."
Baker earned a bachelor's both in early childhood education and Spanish from UTC at Chattanooga in 2010.
For more information about Baker, plus links to photos and a video from the assembly, click here.
Eric Wise is a contributing writer. He is currently attending UTC, where he is a staff writer for the school newspaper, The University Echo. He also serves as the alumni relations chairman for his fraternity.