Conn-West Elementary Teacher Receives Outstanding Educator Award
By Paul Thompson
For Conn-West 5th grade teacher Anika Williams, it seemed to be just another elementary school assembly last Thursday. A group of students sang R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly” to kick things off, and Williams sang along under her breath, the smile of a proud mother on her face.
But this was not “just another assembly.”
Little did she know that the assembly was entirely for her, clandestinely put together to honor her as one of this year’s 55 recipients nation-wide of the Milken Family Foundation’s Outstanding Educator Award.
Once the students had finished their performance, district Superintendent Ralph Teran and Conn-West principal Mary Moore introduced Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Chris Nacastro, who said a few words of congratulations.
To the students and teachers, Nacastro’s visit was the reason they had assembled that day. But then, she yielded the microphone to Milken Family Foundation Vice President Jane Foley.
“I came here to tell you a secret,” Foley told the students of Conn-West. “Before I leave, all of you will know the secret too.”
At this point, Foley began revealing hints that would explain why she was there. She revealed that the surprise involved rewarding an excellent teacher.
Then, student volunteers were each given a square-shaped card: one with a dollar sign, others with numbers. Foley directed the student with a 2 to stand by the dollar sign. She then sent the student with a five over next to it, and two zeros were added as well. It looked like there would be a $2,500 prize waiting for one lucky teacher…
But then Foley brought out another 0, inciting an audible gasp of awe from the audience. One outstanding teacher was about to receive an outstanding prize: $25,000.
Anika Williams sat in the crowd, never guessing it was her. But at the sound of her name, the entire room exploded in applause like the Super Bowl had just been decided.
“I was like, are they kidding me?” Williams said with a laugh when asked about her initial reaction to the announcement. “I actually was thinking of a couple teachers who might be receiving the award who I thought were excellent teachers.”
The ovation continued as an emotional Williams made her way up to the front of the assembly. Rendered speechless, Williams needed several moments before she was ready to speak. In those moments, U.S. Representative Emmanuel Cleaver injected a bit of humor as he introduced Williams, getting down on one knee in a mock marriage proposal as she was being presented with the check.
Afterwards, Williams said she was still unsure about how she would spend the money, which comes with no strings attached.
“I have no idea, but I know there are some kids in my classroom that want me to add some more prizes to my treasure box, so I’m sure they’ll give me some ideas,” she said.
One of Williams’ students who participated in the unveiling of the $25,000 cards was 5th grader Lexus Chevalier. Chevalier was not surprised by the choice of her teacher as a Milken Outstanding Teacher. In fact, once she realized there was a teaching award to be presented, she expected it.
“I knew it was going to be Mrs. Williams, because she’s very talented, very nice, and we all love her,” the student said.
Williams comes from a family of educators, and has worked at Conn-West Elementary for 10 years over two separate stints. Growing up, she always appreciated the effect that a great teacher can have on her students.
“My mother and her two sisters were all educators. When you grow up with a teacher for a mother, you’re in the school a lot and you hear the stories,” said Williams about what inspired her to start a career in the field. “People would come back to her, and they would be thanking her. I thought, ‘Wow, I want to have that kind of effect on someone.’”
Williams has had an effect, and the Milken Family Foundation noticed. The Milken Family Foundation is a charity based out of Santa Monica, California that seeks out and rewards outstanding teachers all over the nation. They don’t accept recommendations or applications: the board of education for all states who participate in Milken’s program put together special committees to help pare down potential candidates. Milken then chooses the best of those select few.
In addition to the $25,000 check, the Milken award comes with an expenses-paid trip to Los Angeles for all the winners to attend a conference and receive their awards.