GARNER — Teacher Tiffany Lachenmayr arrived at Timber Drive Elementary in Garner on Wednesday morning thinking about preparations for the days field trip for her fourth-grade students. Like her colleagues, she thought the mornings assembly was simply to honor her school.
Instead, she was handed a giant check for $25,000.
Lachenmayr reacted with a stunned smile when she heard her name announced as a Milken Educator Award winner, a national award for excellence in education that comes with respect, prominence and a good chunk of cash. She literally shook as she approached the podium.
Thank you so much, Lachenmayr, a math and science teacher, told the crowd. I am really totally speechless. And for those that know me, Im never speechless.
Up to 40 Milken awards will be given nationwide in 2012, and Lachenmayr is the only winner in North Carolina, according to the Milken Family Foundation. She is only the second Wake County teacher to win the award since it was established in 1985.
Lachenmayr, in her ninth year of teaching, credited the schools staff and leadership, and said she wants students to develop a passion for lifelong learning. The students, she said, are my heart.
Theres no other profession where you have the opportunity to touch so many lives, and thats what keeps me coming back, she said.
The award was a tightly held secret. Except for a few key administrators, school staff thought the assembly would celebrate Timber Drives honor as a state School of Distinction.
But after State Superintendent June Atkinson praised the school, Milken Vice President Jane Foley told students and faculty of the purpose of the assembly and the foundation: to provide high recognition for a profession less heralded but more important than any other.
Foley, a 1994 winner, said the award is meant for unsung heroes not seeking attention or recognition; anyone who applies or is nominated is immediately disqualified from the confidential selection process.
You dont find us; we find you, she told the audience.
Before announcing the winner, Foley announced the cash prize. With five students standing up front, she handed out a giant card with a $ on it for one to hold up. Then a 2, and so on. The oohs grew with each digit until the last students zero made $-2-5-0-0. Even many of the teachers had their mouths agape when an unexpected final zero was pulled out.
Lachenmayrs eyes got big, and she appeared to lip Oh, my God, as clues like fourth grade and eight years emerged, though she said she didnt believe it until she heard Atkinson say her name.
I cant even wrap my mind around $25,000, Lachenmayr said. Even at $250 the kids were cheering, and I was with them.
Lachenmayr grew up in the little town of Palestine in southern Illinois and graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign before moving to North Carolina in 2004. She earned a masters in education from Meredith College in 2010, serving as commencement speaker at graduation that May.
Foley said Lachenmayrs students achieved at an especially high level, particularly accelerating in math. She uses data to make sure children dont fall behind, and students return to visit long after leaving her classes, the foundation noted. As a National Board Certified teacher, grade leader and member of the school leadership team, Lachenmayr exhibited leadership skills early in her career, something Foley said was a key criterion.
The Milken Foundation seeks teachers with strong long-range potential for education and policy leadership; it is not a lifetime achievement award.
Multiple print and TV outlets tipped to the event but warned not to notify even school staff were on hand to capture the moment, getting curious glances from students and teachers.
The foundation, founded by brothers Lowell and Michael Milken, has awarded $63 million in cash to more than 2,500 teachers, principals and specialists since the award programs inception. Awards alternate each year between elementary and secondary educators. Several previous winners were on hand to present the check.