By Rachel Willis (GA '10)
As educators, our greatest responsibility lies in teaching and inspiring the students who enter our classroom. We must do everything possible to find innovative ways to tap into our students' interests and activate their learning styles in order to ensure that they're prepared for their future. However, the day you receive the Milken Educator Award is the day that your responsibility to education swells beyond the walls of your classroom. This honor gives you a voice to effect change on a broader scale.
During my time as an undergraduate at Smith College, I was a government major and founded a national organization geared toward involving young women in politics. I also volunteered on campaigns when I was at home and worked in the communications department for U.S. Senator Joseph Lieberman. At the time, I envisioned myself eventually working on Capitol Hill. That all changed when I attended a Teach for America informational session and committed myself to working for two years in a Title I school in my hometown of Atlanta.
As soon as I entered the classroom, I knew I'd found my calling. I fell in love with my students and felt driven to improve my teaching techniques and myself in order to become a stronger educator. The more I focused on my students, the further I stepped away from politics. I felt as if it was my duty to shape the lives of the students assigned to my class and I dedicated every moment to working for them.
"Winning the Milken Award showed me that I had a chance to impact the lives of students and teachers I'd never met. As a Milken Educator, you must remember that your voice carries weight and everyone is listening to your ideas.
My journey back into public policy started November 1, 2010 when Lowell Milken called my name as the newest Milken Educator from Georgia. I remember hearing from a Milken Educator at my notification ceremony that my life was going to change overnight. I was stunned over the next few weeks to receive congratulatory letters from senators, judges and members of Congress from my state. But what surprised me the most when Governor Nathan Deal asked me to serve as one of his educational advisers. It was during this phone call that I realized that, as a Milken Educator, I was being afforded the opportunity to not only impact the lives of the students at my school; I had the chance to help students and educators across the state of Georgia.
Over the next few months, I met regularly with Governor Deal, his chief of staff and 11 other educators from around the state. We advised him on ways to improve elementary and secondary education, effectively evaluate teachers, prioritize education in the face of budget cuts and reward excellence in schools. Each time we met, I was invigorated to hear how our suggestions were being implemented and researched.
In August 2011, I received another phone call from the governor's office. This time I was told that Governor Deal wanted to appoint me to the Board of Trustees for the Teachers Retirement System of Georgia. I am now serving a three-year term as the teacher representative for a $50 billion fund that impacts the lives of active and retired teachers across the state. I know that every vote I make influences the retirement of teachers today and many years down the line. It is a responsibility that I do not take lightly.
I feel that by receiving [the Milken Award], we are being called to enter the world of public policy and help shape the future of education.
Winning the Milken Award showed me that I had a chance to impact the lives of students and teachers I'd never met. As a Milken Educator, you must remember that your voice carries weight and everyone is listening to your ideas. While it would be easy to accept the recognition and carry on with life as usual, I feel that by receiving this honor, we are being called to enter the world of public policy and help shape the future of education.
Don't be daunted to speak your mind at the local, state and federal levels. If this is brand new to you, you could start with your local school board or by writing letters to the editor of your local newspaper to share your opinions with the community. Just remember that as a Milken Educator, you are a leader in the field of education. Challenge yourself to be as courageous in influencing public policy as you are in the classroom and know that no matter what you do, your Milken family is supporting your efforts every step of the way.
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