Shaina Brenner, a second-grade teacher at Elms Elementary School in the Jackson Township district, thought she was taking her class to a school assembly Friday, Oct. 7, to hear Acting Commissioner of Education Dr. Angelica Allen McMillan speak on the importance of social and emotional learning.

But the event held a big surprise for Brenner when her name was announced as the winner of a Milken Educator Award, which comes with a cash prize of $25,000.  A video of her reaction when her name was announced can be seen here.

The educator recognition awards, dubbed the “Oscars” of teaching, are presented by the Milken Family Foundation, which began in 1987 and will honor up to 40 educators in the country this year. The award also includes an expenses-paid trip to Los Angeles to meet with other Milken Educator Award recipients.

Candidates are confidentially recommended to the foundation by a blue-ribbon panel appointed by each state’s department of education.

“When I woke up this morning I definitely didn’t anticipate this,” Brenner said. “I’m a  bit overwhelmed, but want to say thank you to our amazing administration and the board of education. I couldn’t do what I do without their support.”

Brenner also thanked her students. “I am thankful for all the wonderful students here at Elms. You are the reason why I get up every morning and am bursting with sunshine and excited to come to work.”

The Value of Recognizing Teachers

NJSBA Executive Director Dr. Timothy Purnell, who attended the program, noted the critical importance of honoring great teachers.

“We currently have a shortage of students going into teaching,” Purnell said. “Programs like this, which spotlight wonderful professionals and provide tangible rewards for greatness, bring much needed attention to the field and complement the legislative actions and other initiatives needed to combat the shortages.”

Brenner has shared her passion for the environment and conservation with her students, starting a “Green Team” in the school, and spearheading a recycling initiative. Students compost food scraps, contribute to a food sharing table and donate to a local food pantry, including produce grown in the school’s 500-gallon aquaponic garden. In April, the school was named a “Green Ribbon” school by the U.S. Department of Education — one of only 27 districts nationwide and the only school in New Jersey to receive the honor, which was featured in School Board Notes.

She also engages students with individualized learning initiatives, including providing individual checklists for expectations of students for each unit she teaches, and looks for opportunities to connect learners to the world around them. She started a postcard exchange with 49 second grade classrooms across the country, representing every state. Other details of her initiatives are available here.

“Shaina Brenner personifies the qualities of a Milken Educator. She prioritizes her students’ needs and develops creative strategies to engage and prepare them for success in our rapidly changing world,” said Dr. Jane Foley, senior vice president of the Milken Educator Awards and a 1994 Indiana Milken Educator. “Her dedication to improving the lives of her students, her passion for her community and her proven track record of leadership are just some of the many reasons she was honored today. I look forward to the contributions she will provide to our national Milken Educator Network.”

The Department congratulates Ms. Brenner on this outstanding career achievement,” Allen-McMillan said. “Her zest for teaching and understanding of the learning needs of each child is a gift to her students and an inspiration to fellow educators.”

Among the other guests at the surprise announcement were 13 New Jersey educators who knew just how Brenner felt when her name was announced — they are previous Milken Educator Award winners.  “We are delighted to welcome Shaina to our group,” said Dr. Beverly Plein, NJSBA’s consultant for professional learning, who won the award in 2003. “She’ll find this to be a supportive and informal network. I can’t think of a better candidate for this award.”