Thomas Dennison, a fifth-grade teacher at Havre de Grace Elementary School, received an award known as the "Oscars of Teaching" Thursday, a $25,000 Milken Educator Award from the Milken Family Foundation.
Dennison received his award during a surprise announcement at the Havre de Grace Elementary gymnasium; hundreds of students sat on the gym floor during the assembly. He was standing at the back of the room when Karen Salmon, the state superintendent of schools, opened an envelope and read his name.
He crouched briefly, in shock, before walking through a crowd of students who stood and slapped him five as he passed. He hugged his colleagues along the way, including Principal Ronald Wooden. He also hugged Mike Milken, co-founder of the foundation.
"I am extremely proud of Mr. Dennison," Wooden said. "I believe they he's worked extremely hard over the last 14 years to change the lives of young people."
This is the 30th year the Santa Monica, Calif.-based foundation has awarded funds to "outstanding K–12 teachers, principals and specialists who are furthering excellence in education" across the country, according to the Milken foundation website.
The award presented to Dennison Thursday is one of 35 given out for 2016-2017, according to a news release from the foundation. Recipients can use the money any way they want.
"This school is amazing; it's filled with the greatest thing, and that's hope," Dennison said as the oversized check was presented to him.
He noted "hope is believing that what we see right now is going to get better."
Dennison has spent 14 years, his entire career with Harford County Public Schools, teaching at Havre de Grace Elementary – he expects to teach for 30 years.
"That's the plan, to be in these hallways for 30 years, to spend more time in this building than I will any other place in my entire life," he told the audience.
Dennison is a father of four, and his 7-year-old daughter, Samantha, who is in second grade at Havre de Grace, was part of the presentation, along with Dennison's niece and nephew who are also Havre de Grace students.
They were part of a group of students from each grade who Milken brought to the front of the gym as he led up to the check presentation. He asked each child about their experiences in school and their thoughts on teachers and excellence. He gave a card with a dollar sign to the first child, followed by cards with numbers until it showed $25,000.
Past winners of the Milken Educator Award, including four HCPS educators, stood and were recognized during the ceremony.
"Each one of these winners represents the millions of educators in our country," Milken said.
Dennison is known for pushing his students to achieve academic excellence despite challenges such as disabilities and poverty, according to the news release.
He also sets high standards for student conduct, as they will shake hands with classroom visitors.
Dennison breaks his classes into small groups, where students review the day's lesson through analysis, debate or working out problems on chalkboard-covered tables, according to the news release.
Small group learning methods are used throughout the school – Dennison is a "contributing founder" of the Houses Initiative at Havre de Grace Elementary
He has also used outdoor activities to help his students learn, such as re-enactments of Revolutionary War battles with water balloons, working with rockets or learning math through scavenger hunts.
His efforts have paid off, with high scores for most of his students on reading and math standardized tests, according to the news release.
"You have been such successful students," HCPS Superintendent Barbara Canavan said during Thursday's ceremony.
Canavan said Havre de Grace Elementary resembles "one big happy family."
"When I come here, I always feel like I'm part of it," she said.
Salmon, who grew up on a farm in Street, talked about her connection to Harford County and how her first-grade teacher inspired her to be an educator.
"I want all of you boys and girls to consider becoming a teacher," she said. "It's the best job in the whole world."
She noted teaching is the "most important profession in the world, because we make all those other professions possible."
Dennison's methods have attracted interest from school administrators and teachers from throughout Maryland, and he motivates his colleagues to push their students to achieve, too, according to the news release.
He also cares for his students outside of school through home visits and when he sees them at games or in church.
"Former students have described Dennison as the teacher who changed their lives," according to the news release.
Dennison and his fellow award winners will be enshrined in the Museum of the American Educator in Washington, D.C., which the Milken Family Foundation is developing, according to Mike Milken.
The process of selecting the winners is lengthy and involves foundation officials and representatives of state departments of education. Winners, who are in the early or middle parts of their careers, are selected based on how students have progressed before and after they were in that teacher's classroom, plus how they interact with their colleagues and within the community.
"We look for educators that have gone beyond what anyone would expect to be role models for the profression," Milken said.