At a reception honoring her husband Luke as the 2017 Teacher of the Year, Kathryn Daniels had a chance to listen to a speech from a winner of the Milken Educator Award, an accolade so prestigious it’s earned the nickname of “The Oscars of Teaching.”
Since then, it never once occurred to Daniels – a teacher at Petal High School – that she would be in the running for the award. Which is why it was such a surprise to her that she was honored with the award – along with a $25,000 cash prize – during a ceremony Tuesday at the high school, where she became the only Mississippi teacher this year to earn the Milken Educator Award.
“Just hearing about the award, it’s overwhelming to think about the amount of recognition and prestige that went with it,” Daniels said. “When I started hearing it being talked about today, I never made the connection that it could be me, and that it could apply to me.
“It was utter disbelief – it took me a couple of seconds to register that they had said my name, and then I was overcome with emotion.”
The ceremony was attended by the student body, members of the Petal Board of Aldermen, the Petal School District Board of Trustees, Mississippi Superintendent of Education Carey Wright and Greg Gallagher, who serves as Milken Educator Awards Senior Program Director.
The Milken Educator Award, which was instituted 30 years ago by the Milken Family Foundation, is aimed at rewarding top educators around the country. The award targets early-to-mid career educational professionals for impressive achievements and for the potential of future accomplishments.
Daniels, who teaches AP U.S. History and European History and serves as the co-leader of the high school’s history department, is among 40 honorees for the 2019-2020 awards.
“For me, I know how great our teachers are across our district, so it’s not a great surprise to me, because I get to see it each and every day and every year,” said Matt Dillon, superintendent of the Petal School District. “We often talk about what the secret is to the success in Petal, and I very clearly state it’s our people – our teachers, our administrators and everybody.
“But to have this recognition on the national stage to come to Petal High School, and be able to provide a surprise announcement for one of our best teachers, it’s amazing. We’re very proud of Kathryn Daniels – she’s a great ambassador of public education and the Petal School District, so we’re very excited about this opportunity for Mrs. Daniels. It’s very well-earned and she’s very deserving.”
A 2007 graduate of Petal High School, Daniels earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from Mississippi College in 2011, with a major in history and a minor in English literature. She earned her Master of Education degree from Mississippi College two years later.
Daniels taught sixth-grade ELA and social studies at Petal Upper Elementary School, eighth-grade ELA at Pearl Junior High School and English II at Clinton High School. She then moved back to the Petal School District, where she taught Problems in American Democracy and world history before teaching in her current field.
She has been a presenter at the Mississippi Department of Education, a teacher coach for the South Mississippi Writing Project, and is certified in Advanced Placement in U.S. and European History.
The Milken Educator Award was given to Daniels, in large part, because of her help in seeking resources for struggling students through essay contests, scholarships and providing students with rides to school. She also has helped improve writing achievement in the state’s rural and underperforming schools by helping secure grants from the South Mississippi Writing Project.
“Reading, writing, and anything literacy-related is going to be what ultimately keeps our democracy alive, and what keeps our populace being able to communicate and argue in a productive fashion,” Daniels said. “So I believe being able to integrate writing, reading, critical thinking, and speaking and listening skills in every subject is extremely important. As a history teacher, I can’t possibly see teaching the content that I teach without also teaching those skills.”
In the classroom, Daniels uses interactive maps and political cartoons to encourage learning, and invites guests – including Petal Mayor Hal Marx – to speak to students.
“I think this (award) sends a message that education is important,” Daniels said. “A lot of times people are preoccupied with wealth and prestige, and we need more people in the world who are wanting to go out and serve and help other people.
“So I think this sends a message that (endeavor) is worthy, and it’s not about the prestige, the accolades and the money. It gives education the platform that it deserves, and that I think it often doesn’t receive.”
As far as the $25,000 cash reward, Daniels is thinking about using some of those funds to further her education.
“I’ve been talking about wanting to go back to school for a long time to get my Ph.D. in field instruction, to be able to help more people in the educational field,” she said. “So that’s probably most likely where it will go, but I’m not exactly sure at this point.”
In addition to participation in the Milken Educator Network, 2019-20 award recipients will attend a Milken Educator Forum in Indianapolis, Indiana in late March, where they will network with their new colleagues and exchange ideas with state and federal leaders on the future of education.
Milken Educator Awards alternate yearly between elementary and secondary educators. As educators cannot apply for the award, candidates are sourced through a confidential selection process before being reviewed by panels appointed by state departments of education.
More than $140 million in funding, including $70 million in individual $25,000 awards, has been devoted to the overall awards initiative.
“Even in California, we heard great things about your school and your staff,” Gallagher told the crowd at the ceremony. “Research, and our own personal experiences, teach us that the single most important education element in determining how much you will learn in school each year is the quality of the teachers you encounter. Great teachers make a difference.”