When eighth grade algebra teacher Laura Servin arrived at Whittier Middle School this morning, the only unusual thing on her schedule was a pep rally. She and the rest of the staff didn’t know the cause for celebration, only that they should expect some special guests in addition to the usual pom squad and marching band.

Once all the students had gathered, the special guests arrived.

Gov. Greg Abbott, Education Commissioner Mike Morath, State Board of Education member Marisa Perez, San Antonio Independent School District board Superintendent Pedro Martinez, SAISD board President Patti Radle, and SAISD Trustee Olga Hernandez all filed in and took their places facing a cheering crowd of students and a swarm of local media.

The staff, security, and media did little to dampen the enthusiasm of the students. If anything, they added a buzz of curiosity to the festivities. The students cheered for the guests as they were introduced, but the real enthusiasm didn’t let loose until Gary Stark, CEO of the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching, announced the reason for the festivities.

National Institute of Excellence in Teaching CEO Gary Stark laments that teachers do not get enough recognition. Photo by Scott Ball.
National Institute of Excellence in Teaching CEO Gary Stark laments that teachers do not get enough recognition. Photo by Scott Ball.

“As a society, we are quick to recognize greatness in other professions,” he said.

He pointed to the Oscars, Nobel Prizes, and other prestigious awards and lamented that there was not a comparable award for teachers.

“Isn’t it odd that the profession that prepares all other professions should be so left out?”

He then announced that he was there to award the Milken Educator Award, the “Oscar of Teaching” according to Teacher Magazine, to a Whittier teacher. The award is given by the Milken Family Foundation and comes with a cash prize of $25,000 that the winner can spend however they choose, but the prestige of the designation is far more valuable, Stark said. (Though the kids seemed demonstrably more impressed with the dollar amount.)

“I am about to announce one of the best teachers, not just at this school and not just in this state, but in the entire United States of America,” Abbott said.

When Abbott announced Servin’s name, the entire student body erupted into spontaneous and deafening cheers.

It took a while for it to sink in for Servin who sat for a brief moment in stunned silence while students pushed and prodded her to stand up.

“I am very humbled,” she said. “I had no idea this was in store for me today.”

Gov. Greg Abbott congratulates Whittier Middle School teacher Laura Servin for winning the Milken Educator Award. Photo by Scott Ball.
Gov. Greg Abbott congratulates Whittier Middle School teacher Laura Servin for winning the Milken Educator Award. Photo by Scott Ball.

On the Milken Family Foundation’s journey across the country they will be announcing the top secret awards to winners in similar assemblies across the United States. This was their only stop in Texas and the first-ever Milken Educator Award granted to an SAISD teacher.

Servin thanked her team of teachers and administration, and repeatedly thanked her students.

“You make every day coming to school a dream come true for me,” she said.

For Superintendent Martinez, Servin and her recognition send a strong message about the goals and future of SAISD. Servin teaches Algebra I to middle school students with extremely high passing rates. She aims for 100% and gets very close, Martinez said, which sets a great example for other teachers in the district of what can be achieved in a school with similar demographics.

“It’s one of our key goals to get more kids into Algebra I by 8th grade,” Martinez said. “(Servin) represents one of our key goals.”

Servin joined the ranks of 2,600 teachers who have received the award since the its inception in 1987, only 48 of whom are from Texas (the awards did not start in Texas until 2000). The award is given to up to 40 teachers in the country every year. 

The Milken Family Foundation has awarded $137 million in awards and professional development opportunities through the program thus far.

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Unlike most teacher recognition programs, the Milken Educator Awards has no formal nomination or application process. The Texas Education Agency, like other participating state departments of education, appoints an independent blue-ribbon committee to select and review candidates, then proposes them to the Milken Family Foundation. Servin’s name bubbled up through this process and not even her principal, Janet Perez, knew that she was being considered. Perez was as surprised as Servin herself.

According to the Milken Family Foundation’s literature on the award, the following criteria is considered:

“Exceptional educational talent as evidenced by effective instructional practices and student learning results in the classroom and school; exemplary educational accomplishments beyond the classroom that provide models of excellence for the profession; individuals whose contributions to education are largely unheralded yet worthy of the spotlight; early- to mid-career and educators who offer strong long-range potential for professionals and policy leadership; and engaging and inspiring presence that motivates and impacts students, colleagues and the community.”

In addition to her stellar results as an algebra teacher, Servin is also active in the campus’s Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) program, is the National Junior Honor Society sponsor, helps lead the pep-squad, and participates in campus leadership.

All of the speakers urged students to consider a career in teaching. One of the Milken Family Foundation’s goals is to increase the community’s appreciation of teaching careers so that more students will pursue them.


*Top image: Whittier Middle School students scream and cheer as Laura Servin’s name is called to receive the Milken Education Award. photo by Scott Ball. 

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Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog, FreeBekah.com, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.