ATHENS, Tenn. - In front of hundreds of students and his fellow educators, an Athens City Middle School teacher received a $25,000 surprise Tuesday morning.
Kevin Winters, a master teacher with the school's Teacher Advancement Program, received the Milken Educator Award, referred to as the "Oscars of Teaching" by Tennessee Commissioner of Education Kevin Huffman, who presented the award with Gary Stark, president and CEO of the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching.
Winters learned he received the prestigious award during a surprise assembly that teachers were told was called to celebrate improvements in the school's math scores.
"There's no way that I would be up here at all if the staff here, and the leadership of this school and in this system, didn't help prepare me," Winters said. "And it is a testament to everybody in this building, because you all helped me become the teacher that I am, and I hope that you know how much respect I have for each and every one of you."
Winters, a six-year teacher who has spent three years at Athens City Middle - and who is a graduate of the middle school himself - received his bachelor's degree from Tennessee Wesleyan College and his master's in instructional leadership at Tennessee Tech University.
An educator who receives the Milken Award is a "truly exceptional individual" who demonstrates "excellence in education" and a dedication to helping students achieve their best, Huffman said during the assembly.
Mike Simmons, principal of 508-student middle school, said as officials got closer to announcing the award winner, Winters kept pointing to all of the other teachers.
"He is just so self-effacing and humble about it," Simmons said. "It couldn't have gone to a better person."
The Milken Educator Award, which was established 25 years ago to honor and attract great educators to the profession by Lowell Milken, chairman of the Milken Family Foundation, has been granted to about 2,600 recipients nationwide. Since Tennessee began participating in 1992, 60 educators from around the state have received the award.
"These awards say, in a very public way, that greatness in education should be recognized," said Stark, who also spoke as a representative of the Milken Family Foundation.
This award comes at the same time that education officials have been touting Tennessee's recent scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which shows Tennessee as the fastest improving state in the nation.
Additionally, Athens City Middle has been improving at a rate faster than most other schools across the state, with a 10 percent increase over the past two years in the number of students who scored as proficient or advanced in math, Huffman said.
"I think [Winters] embodies just a spirit of great teaching that we're seeing all over the state, and I think it's so great to actually see a teacher get public recognition, because it's not a career where you often get public recognition, and for somebody like Mr. Winters to be recognized in front of his school family like that, it's incredible," Huffman said after the assembly.
As for how he plans to spend the money, Winters said he's sure that his wife, also a teacher,"will be happy to talk that over" with him.
Contact staff writer Alex Harris at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6592.