Memphis teacher surprised with $25,000, recognized as one of 40 recipients of national award

January 9th, 2020

LAURA TESTINO | THE COMMERCIAL APPEAL

Nathan Kirsch, a math teacher at Whitehaven High School, was surprised with a $25,000 national teaching award during an assembly at the school Wednesday morning. 

Kirsch is the only teacher in Tennessee to receive a Milken Educator Award, known as the "Oscar Award of teaching," for this 2019-20 school year. 

"It feels like it's an award for all of my students," Kirsch said after the announcement. He didn't have a speech prepared, but used the time to thank students current and future, as well as his colleagues. 

Tenth-grader Zachary McGhee came down from the bleachers to film the teacher receiving the award. Kirsch also coaches for the school's cross-country and track teams.

"He's just an awesome guy," said McGhee, who runs for Whitehaven High School. Kirsch makes students feel at ease and prepared, he said, while also "(pushing) us to the limits so everyone can do great." 

Kirsch gave a shout-out to the school's principal, Vincent Hunter and Chandra Perkins, his mentor within Memphis Teacher Residency, a nonprofit organization. Perkins is now a math coach for the Whitehaven Empowerment Zone, a group of the neighborhood's schools.

"He's a rockstar," Perkins said. "(Kirsch) sees potential in children and wants to give them everything that they need to be successful in life." 

The state's education commissioner, Penny Schwinn and Joris Ray, superintendent of Shelby County Schools, were present at Whitehaven for the award announcement, alongside Jane Foley, the senior vice president of the Milken Educator Awards. 

The award, created by the Milken Family Foundation in 1987, is given annually to up to 40 teachers across the nation and recognizes potential in early and mid-career teachers. The unrestricted award money and support of the Milken network is meant to kick start these teachers' careers, inspiring educators, students and communities. 

More than $140 million in funding, including $70 million in the individual $25,000 awards, has been devoted to the overall initiative, according to a media release. Tennessee joined the awards program in 1992 and has since had 69 educators receive an award.

A teacher at another Whitehaven school, Erica Stephens, won one of 40 national Milken Awards last year. The math teacher at John P. Freeman Optional School began Facebook streaming the assembly, unknowingly capturing the big moment for her teaching career. 

Stephens was present at the assembly for Kirsch Wednesday, alongside previous Milken awardees. 

The Milken Educator Awards praised Kirsch's innovative approaches to teaching, like having students work backward to solve equations, as well as his teaching results, noting that growth scores and passing rates for the AP Calculus exam improved for students when Kirsch began teaching. 

The foundation also noted his leadership and community involvement.

In his classroom after the assembly, Kirsch said that teaching at Whitehaven combines the passions he has for youth, math and sports. 

"It's all the things I like," he said. 

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Chris Xa

 I am a native Memphian with a unique passion for Economics. I am a proud son of immigrant parents. Currently, I am pursuing a PhD in Economics at the University of Memphis specializing in Labor Economic, Education Economics, and Econometric. I have the honor to serve Peer Power as a Doctoral Fellow, where I study education data and school environments to better help the kids we serve. My topics of research (both within and without of Peer Power) include: Labor policies within educational settings, Teacher incentive policies and retention rates, Human capital measures, and Public funding allocation efficiency. Outside of school and work I love to cook and cheer on our Memphis Grizzles.