North Harford Middle School eighth-grade science teacher Erin Wyatt earned the “Oscars of Teaching” on Wednesday morning when she was presented with the Milken Educator Award.
The award, the only one presented in Maryland this year, comes with a $25,000 prize Wyatt can spend as she pleases.
“I have three kids, and Girls Club [at school],” Wyatt said. “It will go back to my children or some youth.”
Wyatt was presented the award at an assembly in the auditorium — including her 11-year-old daughter, Gisele, who’s in sixth grade — under the guise of the school being recognized for its one-to-one student technology program, State School Superintendent Dr. Karen Salmon said.
The Milken Family Foundation finds its recipients, who meet very specific criteria — teachers can’t apply for the award and aren’t nominated for it, Dr. Jane Foley, Milken Educator Awards senior vice president, said.
“[Wyatt] has very innovative practices and she inspires young people to go into STEM,” Foley said.
She’s also a leader in her profession as the science department chair at the school, an unsung hero and a role model.
“This is not a lifetime achievement award. She has decades in front of her to be in this profession,” Foley said. “People are drawn to people such as this. She’s a role model especially to young women who want to go into science.”
Wyatt was still shaking as she called her husband to share her news.
“I am so blessed to be able to teach so many students and be part of their learning,” Wyatt said.
She is a product of Harford County Public Schools, attending William Paca/Old Post Road Elementary, Magnolia Middle and Joppatowne High. She went to college at Delaware State University, where she got a degree in biology in 2007, and returned to Harford.
“I love Harford County,” Wyatt said.
She planned to be a doctor and got a bachelor’s degree in biology. She had an internship at Yale, then did research, but there was no interaction and Wyatt didn’t feel like she was giving back.
“God knew I should do something different, I should be impacting youth, I should be helping them reach their goals,” Wyatt said.
Her mother, Jonise Stallings, a counselor at Fallston High School, encouraged her to teach.
“And I’ve been here ever since. It’s my 12th year — I love it,” Wyatt said.
She was surprised when she heard her name Wednesday.
“I’m speechless. It’s amazing to get an award for something you love to do,” Wyatt said. “It’s not a job if you like coming to work, like being with your colleagues and you love teaching your students. Every day is a new day. I’m so blessed right now ... thank you.”
Wyatt said she’s happy to be able to teach so many students, to be part of their learning and help them achieve their goals.
“Keeping kids engaged in school — academically and socially — I want them to like to come to school, I want them to want to step foot in the classroom to learn,” Wyatt said.
At North Harford Middle, she started Girls Club in 2011 for young women who need positive role models. The club has 21 members who meet once a week after school. Last year, the club began to meet at lunch and talk with each other and build relationships.
In the mornings before school, she helps members of the club run the school store. Last week, the club visited last year’s eighth-graders who have moved over to North Harford High School.
“We came in, tears were falling — they were very excited to see us,” Wyatt said.
The girls in the program are thriving, according to a news release from the Milken Family Foundation. They have higher grades, better attendance and fewer behavioral referrals.
In her classroom, Wyatt started “Unify Harford,” a curriculum with lessons on tolerance, diversity, citizenship and cultural and community awareness that has expanded to all of eighth grade and is planned to be used throughout Harford schools.
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“It started because we wanted students to feel comfortable and safe in the school building, wanting to come to school,” Wyatt said.
They focus on respecting themselves, respecting others and respecting their surroundings, she said.
“By the end of the unit, we hope to see changes in their behavior,” Wyatt said. “So far so good. Students really open up. That starts with building relationships first and by the end they’re asking ‘Why do even have this, because this is common sense.’"
Foley travels the country bestowing the Milken Education Award on deserving educators, she said.
“And one of the best teachers in the entire nation is here at your school,” Foley said Wednesday announcing the award.
One teacher, during his or her career, has the power to positively influence thousands of young people’s lives, Foley said.
“A good teacher makes a difference,” she said, asking everyone involving in education — from teachers, to administrative staff to custodians — to stand. “These are the people who work so hard every day to give you the education you need to be successful.”