Connections: Linking Talented Educators
Connections: Linking Talented Educators

Activating Milken Educators: Missouri Teacher Leaders of Tomorrow

August 25, 2023

By Erika Kerekes

On July 31, 2023, Missouri Milken Educators came together in Columbia to celebrate a very special group of pre-service teachers: the Missouri Teacher Leaders of Tomorrow (MTLT). For two years, MTLT has honored 10 outstanding future educators, each of whom is mentored by a veteran Milken Educator as they begin their careers in the classroom.

This year’s recipients were selected by administrators at four Missouri universities: Webster University, University of Missouri, Western Governors University, and Missouri State University. “We told the universities we wanted to honor their best student teachers,” says Dr. Angie Besendorfer (MO ’96). “The ones that give you hope and confidence for the future of the profession. We described them as “outliers,” people who have that special something.”

Missouri Teacher Leaders of Tomorrow logoMTLT grew out of the Milken Educator Network’s AME (Activating Milken Educators) initiative. AME encourages Milken Educators to come together in their states to tackle pressing issues in the profession. “We discussed a variety of worthy projects, but ultimately felt compelled to address the teacher shortage and retention crisis in our state,” says Melissa Fike (MO ’19). “We want to invest in our beloved profession by celebrating and mentoring new teachers.”

In addition to Melissa and Angie, Jordan McGaughey (MO ’17), Mark Garascia (MO ’21) and Ashley Gerald (MO ’21) were involved in the creation and planning of MTLT. And many other Missouri Milken Educators stepped in to organize this year’s celebration, notify recipients, and serve as mentors, including Mark Lueckenhoff (MO ’96), Dr. Pamela Stanfield (MO ’96), Dr. L. Denise Fredrick (MO ’99), Eric Dunn (MO ’09), Anika Williams (MO ’10) and Therese Shain (MO ’18). Working together brought the group closer, says Ashley: “We all have a drive and passion for seeing the legacy of education continue in a positive, uplifting way.”

MTLT’s goals:

  • Celebrate individuals who have demonstrated high potential to achieve greatness in education; and
  • Empower awardees through mentoring from an award-winning educator who will encourage them to reach for excellence as they navigate their first year as a teacher.

The planning group wanted to echo the Milken Awards’ traditional notifications. While the first year’s MTLTs were surprised via Zoom, this year’s recipients received their MTLT certificate either on their university campus or in the classroom where they were student teaching. Each notification included an invitation to the summer conference in Columbia. “I was surprised by how surprised they were,” says Mark. “I saw tears at each notification I presented, and I heard several MTLTs mention that it was a life experience they will remember forever.”

At the July gathering, MTLTs and veteran Milken Educators shared their motivations for teaching, discussed the differences between good and great teachers, and set goals for their futures, conversations that are continuing in a private Facebook group. MTLTs also received a very important long-term benefit: ongoing mentoring by a veteran Milken Educator as they begin their classroom careers. “We hope this relationship will support and encourage them to be advocates and leaders in the profession,” says Melissa. The veteran Milken Educators also passed along a very meaningful tradition, the “Power of the Pin,” bestowing pins bearing the MTLT logo upon each recipient to remind them of their responsibility to use their voices to elevate the K-12 profession.

Helena Nunn, a fourth grade teacher at Stonegate Elementary in Raymore, was named an MTLT in the program’s first year. “I was completely blown away,” she remembers. She had never heard of the Milken Educator Award, but she quickly realized the significance of being an MTLT when Angie became her mentor. “After our talks, I can now see myself in higher education positions that can better serve students and other educators,” Helena says. She attended the July gathering and was excited to meet this year’s honorees: “The guidance I will provide to this year’s recipients and others comes from both my experience in the classroom and the advice and encouragement I received from my Milken mentors.” Helena particularly appreciated getting to know Bobbie Jo Lewis, teacher development system coordinator for the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), who offered Helena career path advice, including options for using her recently acquired master’s degree in educational technology.

Missouri’s Milken Educators are looking forward to growing MTLT in the years to come. The group intends to include more universities and work with DESE to increase the program’s impact. “The beauty of starting something new is being able to design and expand it over time,” says Ashley. “This work is vital to ensure ongoing excellence and support in education. We as veteran educators have a duty to uphold excellence for the future.”

The veteran Milken Educators have been invigorated by working on MTLT. “We all know the issues facing the education profession,” explains Mark. “We must ensure that we have the most effective practitioners educating students in our state. Seeing our award winners’ emotion, ambition, and professional curiosity reminded me why I continue to teach and improve my practice in the classroom.” Adds Melissa: “It’s a true honor to recognize a great teacher.”


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