A $25,000 Milken Educator Award, an honor that some call the Oscars of education, was awarded Wednesday to a Rosendale Elementary School teacher.
Roseann Maurantonio, 31, covered her face in shock, then waved to a couple of her students who were cheering and jumping. Eyes wide, she thanked the crowd in the school gymnasium, then accepted a giant check with her name on it. She is the only New York state recipient of the award this year.
Earlier that morning, teachers and students — including Maurantonio — had expected a relatively normal day. They had been asked to attend an assembly to welcome a special guest. The invitation hadn’t seemed particularly out of the ordinary until they got to the gymnasium, where they had to navigate around five television news cameras.
The truth came out slowly over the course of the hourlong presentation. First, Principal Jean Winkler introduced John B. King, New York state commissioner of education. He was the first surprise guest.
“He’s in charge of all the schools in New York,” she told the students, who then began to realize the assembly might be a pretty big deal after all.
“Teachers have a very important role,” King told the students. “Not only do they help us succeed in school, they help us become good people.”
During a short speech, he reminded students that it was almost Thanksgiving, and that they should remember to thank their teachers.
Another surprise visitor, Jane Foley, preached the same message. Foley, senior vice president of the Milken Family Foundation, traveled from Santa Monica, California, to present the award.
“Greatness in education should be recognized,” she said, comparing the award to the Academy Awards of education.
That’s the purpose of the Milken Foundation Educator Award: to celebrate, thank and inspire teachers nationwide.
“We don’t think we say ‘Thank you’ to teachers very often,” Foley said. “We don’t hold ceremonies and clap for teachers very often.”
She promised students she was about to share the biggest secret of all, but first, she made them guess. Foley, a former teacher and 1994 recipient of the award, asked the kids to define words like “excellence” and “financial.”
Using student volunteers with numbered cards, she announced the winner would get a $25,000 prize, which, thanks to the earlier vocabulary lesson, absolutely floored the students.
By the time Foley had explained the honor to the crowd seated on the gymnasium floor, everyone was visibly impatient for the big reveal. Even teachers were leaning over and whispering to one another.
Finally, Maurantonio’s name was read from a navy blue envelope, lettered in gold. Students and teachers exploded into applause. Rosendale’s students, who had sat in neat, quiet rows just an hour earlier, screamed as if they’d seen a celebrity.
Maurantonio stood, stunned.
“There was this one person they chose in New York state,” Maurantonio said after the ceremony. “Could I really be that one person in New York state? I didn’t think it could be me.”
Winners of the Milken Educator Award may use their financial prize as they please. Maurantonio is not sure how she’ll use the money yet, although she said she dreams of opening her own school one day and possibly earning a Ph.D.
Three past winners attended the assembly to celebrate with Maurantonio. Mark Kaercher, a 2001 winner, and 2010 winners Heather O’Leary and Rachel Tonkovich agreed the shock would probably last a while.
“It takes a long time to take it all in,” said Tonkovich.
O’Leary, a teacher at Van Corlear Elementary School in Schenectady, said the best part of being honored four years ago was receiving messages of congratulations.
“It’s amazing the people you hear from,” she said, noting she had heard from her own teachers, former students and colleagues who had moved away or retired. O’Leary said she deeply felt the gratitude and recognition the Milken Foundation works to win for teachers.
Once the news crews left, Maurantonio said the rest of the day would include parent-teacher conferences and preparing her students for an upcoming math test.
As the children walked single-file to their classrooms to get back to work, it was clear they had absorbed the foundation’s message about gratitude.
First-graders Elyse Boyle and Patrick O’Brien said they would remember to thank their teachers.
“We can say, ‘Great job teaching,’ or something very nice,” Boyle said.
“Or give them a card,” O’Brien added.
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