An Annapolis High School math teacher who works with behaviorally challenged students was surprised Wednesday morning with the Milken Educator Award, a national honor that comes with a $25,000 prize.
The award was a shock for math teacher Allison Felton — she didn’t even know it existed. And like her co-workers and students, she thought she was attending an assembly for a Wellness School of Distinction award Annapolis High earned for 2017.
Felton teaches Algebra 1 to ninth-graders who struggle with attendance, behavior and grades. She also teaches three sections of AP calculus.
“I tell my students that I’ve got their backs, 24-7, I tell them that we’re going to struggle through this together,” she said. “I try to run my classes as honestly as possible too, so the kids know I’m not going to sugar coat anything and I think they respect that, and they trust me, so they work really hard for me.”
Felton started the assembly seated in the audience. After some remarks from officials on the value of wellness, Michael Milken, co-founder of the Milken Family Foundation, informed the audience that they were actually there to reward one of the nation’s best teachers.
Film has the Oscar, music has the Grammy and education has the Milken Educator Award, the philanthropist and former financier said.
“Great teachers, educators, principals are the backbone, not just of your school, but of our entire county and the world today,” Milken said.
The Milken award has been around for 30 years, and has recognized 2,700 educators in that time. Felton was recommended for the award through the Maryland State Department of Education and is one of 44 teachers from across the country who will win the award this school year.
Once the true nature of the assembly was revealed, Gov. Larry Hogan announced Felton as the winner.
The goal of the award is to bring attention to the need for “able, caring and creative” people to join the profession in a time where fewer young people are becoming educators, and others are leaving the classroom, according to the award’s website. It's awarded to a teacher in their early to mid-career, for achievement but also the promise of what they might do in the future, officials said.
When introducing Milken, State Superintendent of Schools Karen Salmon told students that through his work on Wall Street, Milken provided money to many companies. Milken also pleaded guilty to securities and tax violations in 1990.
Felton shed a few tears when she found out she was the teacher they were honoring.
Felton’s approach to teaching has been proven to work — in a statement announcing the award, Milken foundation officials said Felton’s students showed a 20 percent growth from 2015 and 2016 in their PARCC tests for Algebra 1. She has also helped to improve the school’s average AP Calculus scores and expand the AP program. She also helped write the Algebra 1 curriculum that is used county-wide.
She has taught at Annapolis High School for six years and said her first year at the school came with struggles — what she thought high school teaching would be was different from what it actually was. She was frustrated because she wasn’t getting through to students at first, but decided to give it another shot.
The support system at the school, including school Principal Sue Chittim, is what kept her going, she said. Today she would tell any new teacher to not give up if they struggle, because it’s worth it.
“The fact that I see a kid come in and their eyes light up when they finally understood something, it’s great, because you know that you had a role in that happening,” Felton said. “If they had a bad day you could brighten their day. One little compliment pays dividends.”
In addition to the cash, recipients also gain access to professional development opportunities and a network of 2,700 recipients. Her $25,000 prize is unrestricted — she can use it however she wants.
“The money for me is life changing, it’s going to help me out in so many ways,” she said.
She plans to give back a little to the school, and save the rest to buy a house.
“I moved here from Pittsburgh, I’ve been here six years, I’m ready to settle down,” she said.