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Second New Mexico Teacher Surprised with $25,000 Milken Educator Award

Gonzales Community School's Gabrielle Kahawai among more than 60 outstanding educators recognized nationwide 

Oprah Winfrey congratulates Milken Educators in heartwarming video message as 'light in this world'

April 20, 2022

SANTA FE, N.M. — In a surprise schoolwide assembly today, Gabrielle Kahawai, a third grade teacher at Gonzales Community School, received a $25,000 Milken Educator Award for her innovative, engaging teaching and the collaborative environment she fosters through building meaningful relationships with her students and their families. Kahawai is the second recipient in New Mexico and joins Loving High School's Tyler Finch, who was awarded at an assembly yesterday. 

Milken Educator Awards Senior Vice President Dr. Jane Foley and New Mexico State Secretary Dr. Kurt Steinhaus surprised Kahawai before cheering students, colleagues, state and local officials, and the media. Kahawai is one of only two educators in New Mexico and among more than 60 nationwide to receive the recognition during the 2021-2022 school year. 

"Exceptional educators should be celebrated and recognized, and we are thrilled to welcome Gabrielle Kahawai to our nationwide network of Milken Educators," said Dr. Foley, who herself is a 1994 Indiana Milken Educator. "Kahawai's eagerness to improve her practice through professional development and innovation, creativity in engaging students, and her outstanding leadership are just some of the many ways she exemplifies a Milken Educator." 

Hailed as the "Oscars of Teaching," the Milken Educator Awards celebrate, elevate and activate the American teaching profession and inspire young, capable people to join it. The Milken Educator Award is not a lifetime achievement honor. Recipients are heralded while early to mid-career for what they have achieved — and for the promise of what they will accomplish given the resources and opportunities inherent in the Award. 

Oprah, a longtime education advocate, shared her congratulations to this year's winners in a video message shared earlier this year thanking "the most incredible educators around the country" and acknowledging her deep appreciation for the "tireless work" they do. 

"Gabrielle Kahawai has repeatedly shown a quickness to adopt new ideas and strategies, and her speedy pivot during the pandemic spread enthusiasm among both her third-graders and her teaching colleagues," said New Mexico Public Education Secretary Kurt Steinhaus. "She is the kind of teacher who inspires both children and adults to do our best. Thank you, Ms. Kahawai, for being a guiding light for all of us. You make us proud."

More About Gabrielle Kahawai 

Leadership through creativity and innovation: When educators across the country had to pivot at the onset of the pandemic in 2020, Kahawai was able to continue to provide her students with creative, hands-on and interesting activities that fostered a fun, interactive learning environment. Leading up to Halloween, Kahawai assigned a scary-story writing project where students met with her individually to polish their drafts and then shared them through an app to collaborate with classmates and exchange feedback. This positive, enthusiastic environment was exceptional given the challenges of virtual teaching via Zoom. Through her innovative adoption of technology, Kahawai became a resource for colleagues as they learned to master tools and strategies to support virtual instruction. She meets weekly with her grade level to address professional learning opportunities, plan lessons, analyze student data and collaborate on efforts to address individual student needs. 

Engagement with families and the broader community: Kahawai served on the site-based management team and helped create a literary fair for Gonzales' younger students, while also coordinating the school’s hiking club leading students and their families on hikes in the Santa Fe National Forest. She creates an open, encouraging environment for students and advocates for families to connect with her frequently to ensure their children are successful. Students leave Kahawai's classroom well-prepared to move forward in their academic careers and know they will have lasting guidance when needed. 

Education: Kahawai earned a bachelor's in elementary education in 2012 from New Mexico Highlands University.

More About the Milken Educator Awards: "The future belongs to the educated."

Along with the $25,000 financial prize, recipients join the national Milken Educator Network, a group of more than 2,800 top teachers, principals and specialists. The network serves as a rich resource for fellow educators, legislators, school boards and others dedicated to excellence in education. 

  • In June, the honorees will attend an all-expenses-paid Milken Educator Awards Forum in Los Angeles, where they will network with their new colleagues as well as veteran Milken Educators and other education leaders about how to increase their impact on K-12 education. In addition, they will learn about how to become involved in the Milken Friends Forever (MFFs) mentoring program, in which freshman Milken Educators receive personalized coaching and support from a Milken Educator veteran on ways to elevate their instructional practice and take an active role in educational leadership, policy and practice.
  • Over the years, more than $140 million in funding, including $70 million for the individual cash awards, has been devoted to the overall Milken Awards initiative, which includes powerful professional development opportunities throughout recipients' careers. 
  • Veteran Milken Educators frequently go on to serve in leadership roles at state, national and international levels. 
  • “We find you. You don’t find us!” Unlike most teacher recognition programs, the Milken Educator Awards initiative has no formal nomination or application process. Candidates are sourced through a confidential selection process and then reviewed by blue ribbon panels in each state. The most exceptional candidates are recommended for the award, with final selection made by the Milken Family Foundation. 
  • The $25,000 cash award is unrestricted. Recipients have used the money in diverse ways. For instance, some have spent the funds on their children's or their own continuing education, financing dream field trips, establishing scholarships, and even adopting children.   

To get regular updates on the surprise Milken Educator Award events or to watch the award events unfold, follow and use the #MilkenAward hashtag on Facebook (@MilkenEducatorAwards), Twitter (@Milken), YouTube (/MilkenAward), Instagram (MilkenFamilyFdn), and TikTok (@MilkenAward). 

For more information, visit or call the Milken Family Foundation at (310) 570-4772. 

About the Milken Educator Awards
The first Milken Educator Awards were presented by the Milken Family Foundation in 1987. The awards provide public recognition and individual financial rewards of $25,000 to elementary and secondary school teachers, principals and specialists from around the country who are furthering excellence in education. Recipients are heralded in early to mid-career for what they have achieved and for the promise of what they will accomplish. The initiative was created by the Milken Family Foundation, which celebrates 40 years of elevating education in America and around the world. Learn more at

Press Contact:

Jana Rausch
Vice President, Communications
310-570-4774 Office 310-435-9259 Cell