'Meeting' on chemistry teacher's day off turns into $25K educator award
Alexis Egeland, The Republic | azcentral.com
Tucson Desert View High School chemistry teacher Jonathan Cadena wasn't supposed to be at school Thursday.
But his co-workers convinced him he needed to come in for a "meeting."
It turned out to be a much, much bigger surprise.
Cadena said he was suspicious about how pushy his colleagues were about making sure he showed up.
"I just had kind of a feeling but I was thinking, 'OK, maybe they’ll do some sort of an award,' " he said. "But as far as the actual award, especially the monetary award, that totally caught me off guard."
At work that day, he was surprised with a $25,000 check and the Milken Educator Award.
Recognizing teachers early on in careers
The award, created by Lowell Milken and the Milken Family Foundation, was created 31 years ago to honor top educators across the country.
"When I was in school, I was fortunate to have a number of outstanding teachers and I was always somewhat shocked by the fact that there was no mechanism, no opportunity for these teachers to be honored, celebrated and recognized," Milken said.
Because of that, one of his top priorities when he started the Milken Family Foundation was to find a way to recognize educators.
The first Milken Educator Awards were given in 1987, and at the time the only recipients were in Milken's home state of California. Every year after that, a few more states were added. Now, recipients are considered in all 50 states, as well as the District of Columbia.
The award is given to teachers earlier in their careers.
"We're looking for individuals who have distinguished themselves greatly in a short amount of time and who we believe have extreme potential," he said.
This year, 44 educators across the country have or will be presented the award. Cadena is the only Arizona recipient.
Surprising the winner
Milken said Cadena's assembly was one of the most unusual experiences he's had in his 31 years of presenting the award.
Cadena had taken a day off Thursday to watch his 3-month-old son while his wife, also a teacher, attended a conference in Phoenix. So school administrators had to figure out a way to get him to the assembly.
"He was up in Phoenix at a conference with his wife, I believe, so when he got down to the ceremony he was only running on like two hours of sleep," Milken said. "It was the first time we'd ever had to accommodate someone's baby at the assembly, and the first time I'd ever posed with a 3-month-old in the picture with the check."
The winners can use the money for anything they want, and are encouraged to spend it on themselves.
"Teachers make a financial sacrifice to be in the education field and we’re hoping that our award, even if it's small, can make a difference in their lives," Milken said.
A new stage for a soft-spoken teacher
Cadena said he had never heard of the Milken Educator Award before he received it, but he is honored to have been recognized.
"I didn’t know that there was a foundation out there that put this much money in such a cool way to go out and surprise teachers," he said. "It's really cool."
Cadena hasn't had much time to process the award, but he did say he's planning to set some of the money aside for his 3-month-old son's future.
He said he is unsure exactly what he'll do with the rest, but he is excited to get some "cool gadgets" for chemistry class.
In addition to the money, Milken award recipients attend dinners with the Milkens, speak at events, and gather at a big convention in Washington, D.C., in the spring.
Cadena said he's glad there's more to the award than just the money — he's excited to have a platform he can use to make his voice heard in the education world.
"I’m super happy for the opportunity to get out there," he said. "I’m sort of a reserved guy at school but I think that getting this award will give me the opportunity to get out and express my opinions and share my feelings about teaching."
Former winners: Where are they now?
Timothy Thomas, the principal at Roger’s Ranch School in Laveen, won the award last year. He had been an educator for 14 years when he received the award.
He had never heard of it before, either. In fact, he said, he had to google Milken after he won and discovered he was a billionaire.
"I was just glad I didn't know who he was until after," Thomas said. "I was showing him around the campus, just chatting with him — I would have been way more nervous if I had known he was a billionaire."
Thomas said he thinks it is important that Milken uses the platform his fame and money provide him to recognize educators, who are often overlooked.
"The Milken family offers strong support for teachers and they advocate for improving education," he said.
Thomas hasn't done anything with his award money yet. He has two young kids, and said he plans to save it to help them attend college or pay for their weddings.
The only negative thing Thomas had to say about his experience was that he wishes more people could receive the award.
"I just kept asking, 'Why me?'" he said. "There are so many more people who deserve it, and I hope that someday they can all get the recognition they deserve."
Ana Gutierrez had been teaching for five years and was saving to buy a house with her husband when she received the award in 2014.
Gutierrez was a TAP Master Teacher at Longview Elementary School in Phoenix, mentoring and training other teachers. She's now an administrator at Wildflower School in Goodyear.
On March 26, 2014, Gutierrez walked into the school’s gym expecting an assembly hosted by Arizona’s superintendent of public instruction, Diane Douglas.
“It ended up being a surprise award ceremony for me,” she said. “It was a big surprise.”
Gutierrez said she used part of the money to go back to school and pursue a career as a school administrator. She and her husband used the rest to buy their first house.
She emphasized the importance of an award like this in an age of educational turmoil, as state leaders battle over school funding and teacher salaries.
Gutierrez said teaching is a lot harder than a lot of people realize, and it can be discouraging when working in a state that doesn't pay teachers enough.
She said the Milken award is just the encouragement many educators need.
"It can be hard sometimes, but then I remember the honor of receiving the Milken award and it makes me want to stick around," she said.
This piece was originally published on azcentral.com.