The rumor was that the president of the United States was going to appear at Baltimore City College on Thursday, so teacher Mark Miazga swapped his usual polo for a shirt and tie in case he got a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity before resuming his day of teaching Steinbeck.
But it wasn't long into the assembly at City College — whose marching band, cheerleaders and choir showcased their talents and set a festive tone for 600 students, political leaders, and state and local education officials — that Miazga was stunned by the announcement that he was the guest of honor.
The English teacher was surprised with a Milken Educator Award, which comes with a cash prize of $25,000 and a title that only 40 other teachers across the country earned this year. Considered the Oscars of teaching awards, they are given to educators who have exhibited extraordinary commitment and achieved great results in early or mid-career.
Miazga is the only Maryland recipient for 2013-2014, and the 58th Maryland educator ever to receive the award. The last time a Baltimore City teacher received a Milken Award was in 2007.
Miazga, a Michigan native, has been teaching in Baltimore for 13 years. He describes his style as having evolved from a teacher-centered approach to learning to one of empowering students to take control of their own education.
"I'm much more focused on building skills than teaching content," he said.
His accomplishments in Baltimore include having 94 percent of his students pass the rigorous International Baccalaureate English exams in the past three years. A national board-certified teacher, he is also known for taking on numerous leadership roles and professional development opportunities.
A lover of literature — his classroom has a free library that he replenishes from a local charity — Miazga's students describe him as a teacher who pushes them to think critically and provocatively.
Kori James, a senior in Miazga's IB English course, recalled reading from the works of James Baldwin and described a related discussion on race as "raw."
"He has really taught us how to think really independently and form our own opinions," she said.
On Thursday, his ninth-graders were writing a chapter about a modern-day issue in Baltimore using John Steinbeck's style. His 12th-graders were starting the novel "Cannery Row."
"I've always loved to read," Miazga said. "In high school, I never got in trouble except for reading a book under my desk. And now to be able to give that gift of my love of literature to students is a great job. I get to teach great books and talk about them with really smart kids. That's kind of like heaven."
Darla Strouse, who oversees recognition programs at the Maryland State Department of Education and has helped choose all of the state's Milken Award recipients, said Miazga immediately stood out.
What stood out most clearly, she said, was that Miazga — who will start his 11th year as City's varsity baseball coach this spring — is considered "a beloved teacher" by his colleagues.
"People all felt that this is a very special teacher," Strouse said. "His tremendous devotion to the students, not only in his great skills in teaching but also his caring and extra support he gives his students outside the classroom, just became very, very obvious."
Due to incorrect information supplied by the Maryland State Department of Education, an earlier version of this article gave incorrect information about the last time a Baltimore teacher won the Milken Educator Award. A Polytechnic Institute teacher won the award in 2007. The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.