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Surprise! Shelby County's Nathan Kirsch Rings in the New Year with $25,000 Milken Educator Award

When it comes to coaching teachers and students, Whitehaven High teacher knows no bounds

January 08, 2020

Santa Monica, Calif., — Nathan Kirsch, a math teacher at Whitehaven High School in Shelby County Schools, Tennessee, brings a team mindset to everything he does – whether it's inspiring students to take charge of their own learning, sharing best practices with colleagues, or helping athletes soar to greater heights. But all eyes were on Kirsch today as his work was singled out with a prestigious Milken Educator Award — along with $25,000 to use however he chooses. 

Milken Educator Awards Senior Vice President Dr. Jane Foley, Tennessee Commissioner of Education Dr. Penny Schwinn and Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dr. Joris M. Ray surprised Kirsch with the honor before cheering students, colleagues, state and local officials, and the media. Kirsch is the only Tennessee recipient of the Award for the 2019-20 school year and among up to 40 educators nationwide to receive the recognition this season. 

Hailed by Teacher magazine 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.

"By putting students first, Nathan's classroom is electric. Students are eager to excel in math and learn skills they will carry with them long after they graduate," said Foley. "Nathan's efforts to strengthen the teacher force in the building and beyond are ensuring limitless opportunities for students." 

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. 

"We are proud to have an educator like Mr. Kirsch be recognized with the Milken Award for his hard work and dedication to these students," added Schwinn. "As part of our Tennessee Best for All strategic plan, we are focused on making Tennessee the best state to become and remain an educator and leader." 

More About Nathan Kirsch 

Innovation: Unlike lecture-guided instruction, students lead in Kirsch's classroom. Class often starts with the answer up on the board; students work backwards to solve the equations. They use technology to examine three-dimensional shapes to further their understanding of geometry and play games to explore new math concepts. Kirsch, who has taught algebra, geometry and AP Calculus, stresses mastery above all else. Students can retake tests and assessments, but only if they attend his tutoring sessions before trying again. Kirsch never lowers his expectations and builds strong relationships that allow him to tap into students' full potential. They trust and respect him, constantly showering Kirsch with questions about academics and life in general. 

Results: Kirsch's methods deliver outstanding results. Kirsch's students scored in the 99th percentile on the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System (TVAAS). The year before he took over the school's AP Calculus class, not a single student had passed the AP exam; in two years, pass rates rose to 83%. 

Leadership: An accomplished college athlete, Kirsch brings a team mindset to teaching. He constantly shares ideas and practices with colleagues and heads math content on Whitehaven's instructional leadership team. When the school's competitive math team needed a coach, Kirsch stepped in without hesitation. He coaches Whitehaven's track and cross country teams and has helped them soar: Kirsch's athletes have broken all school records from 800 to 5,000 meters, and the girls' track team has won two state championships. Outside school, Kirsch coaches middle and long-distance athletes of all ages for the Bluff City Track Club, qualifying many for regional championships and the Junior Olympics. 

Community: Kirsch came to Whitehaven through the Memphis Teacher Residency (MTR), a nonprofit organization that recruits, trains and supports educators for the city's high-need schools, and has mentored new teachers at both Whitehaven and Hamilton High School. He lives in the community where he teaches in order to build stronger relationships with families and is committed to expanding opportunities for Memphis students. Kirsch spent two summers developing curriculum and teaching at Bridge to Enter Advanced Mathematics, a summer program for middle school students from under-resourced schools in New York City. Kirsch is currently working with MTR to bring the program to Memphis in 2020, including recruiting math teachers of color from local colleges and universities. The monthlong program will be open to all incoming seventh graders in the district. 

Education: Kirsch earned a bachelor's in mathematics in 2011 from Taylor University and a master's in education in 2014 from Union University. 

More information about Kirsch, plus links to photos and video from today's assembly, can be found on the Milken Educator Awards website at

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

The very 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. 

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.

The 2019-2020 honorees will also attend an all-expenses-paid Milken Educator Forum in Indianapolis March 26-28, 2020, where they will network with their new colleagues and exchange ideas with state and federal leaders on the future of education. In addition, the Milken Educator Awards'  "Why Not Us" program will pair each 2019-2020 recipient with a veteran Milken Educator mentor to explore and prepare for expanded leadership roles that strengthen education practice and policy.

  • 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. 
  • The Awards alternate yearly between elementary and secondary educators; this season honors secondary school teachers. 
  • Veteran Milken Educators frequently go on to leadership roles at state, national and international levels. 
  • Unlike most teacher recognition programs, the Milken Educator Awards 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. Those most exceptional are recommended for the Award, with final selection made by the Milken Family Foundation. 
  • The cash award is unrestricted. Recipients have used the money in diverse ways; for instance, on their children's or their own continuing education, financing dream field trips, establishing scholarships, and even on the adoption of children.   

To get regular updates on the surprise Milken Educator Award events, follow and use the #MilkenAward hashtag on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Everyone is encouraged to watch the tour at,, and

For more information, visit or call MFF at (310) 570-4772.