When Lisa Rodgers joined the rest of the Grandview High School community in the school gymnasium on Oct. 31, she fully expected to be a passive witness to someone else's celebration.
Rodgers, a physical science and biology teacher at the school, found a seat among her fellow science teachers in the back of the packed room as students filled the bleachers and found seats on the floor. She'd heard simply that Grandview was being celebrated for its 20th anniversary.
"Last year, we had several coaches who won honors at the state level," Rodgers said. "I honestly thought that one of those state-level coaches had also won a national award."
When Lowell Milken, chairman and co-founder of the Milken Family Foundation, announced her name into the microphone, it took a few moments for Rodgers to properly process the facts. Rodgers was Colorado's winner of the Milken Educator Award, an honor hailed by "Teacher" magazine as the "Oscar of Teaching" that includes a $25,000 cash prize. A crowd of dignitaries from the Cherry Creek School District, the Colorado Department of Education and the MFF were waiting for her to take her place at the podium at the front of the gym and say a few words.
"When they said, 'Lisa Rodgers,' my first thought was, 'How many of you knew about this?' My second was, 'I don't think I can walk, and I think I have to.' I was literally shoved from my seat," Rodgers said. "I had no idea that teaching awards that you couldn't a
pply for existed."
Lowell Milken, in fact, prides himself on the fact that his namesake award comes as a complete surprise to the educators it honors. Since its inception in 1987, the Milken Educator Awards program has honored more than 2,700 recipients with approximately $68 million in awards. The awards seek to recognize teachers who demonstrate exceptional educational talent and educational accomplishments, teachers whose contributions to education are largely unheralded even as they're worthy of the spotlight.
The award was also designed as a stepping-stone, Milken explained to the crowd assembled at Grandview that included CCSD Superintendent Harry Bull, Colorado Commissioner of Education Katy Anthes and past Colorado winners of the Milken Educator Award.
"You are a representative of an outstanding faculty here at Grandview," Milken said, speaking to Rodgers directly. "We believe that you have the potential to achieve even greater things."
The award will offer Rodgers plenty of chances to further expand and enrich her approach to teaching. Along with the $25,000 prize, which Rodgers can spend however she sees fit, the award carries a claim of membership among an elite group of educators. Rodgers will have access to insights from decades' worth of past winners; beginning with a trip to Washington, D.C. for an education conference later this year, Rodgers will have a place among the country's top educators from the past four decades.
She'll also have the opportunity to share her own insights about teaching with that same group.
"I hope that my classroom always exists at the intersection of opportunity and accountability," Rodgers said. "I want every kid to have every opportunity to be successful. That comes along with accountability – I'm going to hold my students accountable for learning at their best level."
Over her past 12 years at Grandview, that approach has paid off in measurable growth among her students. It's also a philosophy that immediately appealed to Harry Bull, who was principal at Grandview the year that Rodgers was hired.
"Twelve years ago, I had the opportunity to interview her for a science position here at Grandview … I remember the interview. She stood out as a phenomenal teacher right away," Bull recalled. "I've been in her classroom, I've watched her work. She is a model teacher. She challenges kids, but she finds ways to connect with them. Students can be successful in her classroom, and she's done that every year she's been here."
The Milken award is proof of Rodgers' consummate dedication to her students, Bull said, adding that the honor is, on a larger level, a novel way to give uncredited teachers from across the country their proper due.
"It shines a light on the fact that the people who truly make a difference every day in the lives of our children and influence the future of this country and this world are people who are not paid the respect that I think they deserve," Bull said. "As a society, I think we should extend that level of dignity and respect to those people who make those differences. We don't always do that. The Milken Award is an opportunity to say, 'Teachers are important.'"
During her 12 years at Grandview, Rodgers has always felt that sense of appreciation. Her unique approach to teaching has grown and developed thanks in large part to the encouragement and freedom she's found at the school. As she faced a barrage of officials, colleagues and students all waiting their turn to offer their congratulations, Rodgers was careful to give due credit to the entire Grandview community.
"As a teacher, I feel like as long as I'm keeping up, they leave me alone to do what I do best, and that's teach kids. That's very powerful," Rodgers said. "That's what makes Grandview awesome – I can do what I think is best for my students."