Fourth grade teacher Elaine Hill got the surprise of her career this morning as more than 1,000 students from Waterbury’s Michael F. Wallace Middle School gathered in the gym for what everyone assumed was a schoolwide assembly.
Distinguished guests from the governor’s and mayor’s offices and the State Department of Education were present, and members of the student choir and band performed for the crowd. While officials congratulated Wallace students and teachers on their many achievements, they also made an announcement that Hill had not anticipated. She was about to receive one of the nation’s top education honors–one that there is no application or nomination for: the Milken Educator Award, which is given to early and mid-career teachers for their achievements and the promise of what they will accomplish.
Nicknamed “the Oscars of teaching,” Milken awards come with an unrestricted $25,000 prize for the winning teacher. Milken Education Awards Senior Vice President Jane Foley traveled more than 3,000 miles to present the award to Hill in person.
“Even in California, we have heard about you,” Dr. Foley said. “We think educators have the most important job in the country, because their responsibility is preparing all of you for a bright future, so our message is about the critical roles educators play in our society.”
Calling educators the single most important element in a child’s academic success–without Oscars, Emmys, Nobel Prizes, or any of the other awards recognizing talent in other fields–she added, “In the spirit of paying tribute to the importance of our educators, I’d like to take a moment to acknowledge the dedicated faculty and staff at this school and invite them all to stand.”
Also on hand to congratulate Hill were Lt. Governor Susan Bysiewicz, Education Commissioner Charlene Russell Tucker, Waterbury Mayor Michael O’Leary, and past Connecticut recipients of the Milken Award.
Hill is a founding member of Wallace Middle School’s Academic Academy, a school-within-a-school for fourth through eighth grades that provides a full-day challenging program for excelling students and an after-school program that keeps most of her students with her until 4:50 p.m. four days a week—wraparound time that has been critically important as the school recovers from pandemic learning disruptions.
Hill’s weekly student mentoring program has been highlighted on local news programs, showcasing her seventh- and eighth-graders’ work with fourth- and fifth-graders on STEM projects such as building LEGO robots. After her class discussed the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and watched videos of his speeches, students wrote essays about the civil rights hero, with one earning top honors in an essay contest sponsored by Connecticut U.S. Senator Chris Murphy.
Hill places a priority on building community among students and with families. During the pandemic, she found creative ways to include families in their children’s learning at home, and former students often stop by her classroom to thank her for her ongoing encouragement and support.
“I teach because I love my students, and I love watching them learn, grow, and have fun,” said Hill in a post-ceremony interview. “When I see my students achieve, I feel as successful as they feel. It’s important to recognize teachers and education, because we’re doing work that helps the whole community, and it is an undervalued job.”
She added, “This is a celebration of our school and all of our students. This is our moment, together.”