Whitehaven High teacher receives national ‘Oscars of Teaching’ award

January 9th, 2020


Shortly after receiving the prestigious Milken Educator Award Wednesday morning, Whitehaven High School teacher Nathan Kirsch said he’d never heard of the award prior.  

The award comes with an unrestricted $25,000 gift and is a secret to school staff, teachers and students before being announced.

Called the “Oscars of Teaching” by Teacher magazine, the Milken Educator Awards has no formal nomination or application process. It’s a confidential selection process that finds early- to mid-career educators as candidates, who are then reviewed by panels in each state.

The Milken Family Foundation makes the final selection.

A pep rally turned into a surprise award ceremony for Kirsch Wednesday, Jan. 8, in the Whitehaven High School gymnasium in front of students, teachers and local and state dignitaries. 

“One teacher over the course of their career has the potential to impact thousands of young people’s lives,” said Jane Foley, senior vice president of the Milken Educator Awards. “One of the best teachers in the entire country, of three million teachers, is here at your school.”

Kirsch is the only 2019-2020 award winner in Tennessee. This year the foundation focused on secondary school educators. Up to 40 educators will receive the award.

He said he was overwhelmed and humbled to be chosen.

“This doesn’t feel like an award for me,” Kirsch said. “It feels like an award for all of my students. … It’s not about one person, it’s about the people around them.”

Selection criteria includes exceptional educational talent, educational accomplishments that go beyond the classroom, teachers whose contributions have been unsung, strong potential for professional and policy leadership, and an engaging and inspiring presence that motivates and impacts students, colleagues and the community.

Kirsch teaches math at Whitehaven High and coaches the school’s competitive math team, as well as its track and cross country teams. Outside of the school, Kirsch coaches middle- and long-distance runners of all ages for the Bluff City Track Club. 

He student-taught at Whitehaven High during the 2013-14 school year, then spent two years teaching at Hamilton High School, before teaching at Whitehaven High in the 2016-17 school year. 

Kirsch came to Whitehaven High through the Memphis Teacher Residency. He earned a bachelor’s in mathematics in 2011 from Taylor University and a master’s in education in 2014 from Union University.

Along with the prize, 2019-20 Milken winners will attend an all-expenses-paid Milken Educator Forum in Indianapolis in March. At the forum they will network and exchange education ideas with state and federal leaders. They also will be paired with a prior Milken Educator mentor. 

The first Milken Educator Award was presented in 1987. Tennessee joined the awards program in 1992. Since that time, $1.7 million has been awarded to 69 recipients in the state. 

Erica Stephens, a fourth-grade math teacher at Whitehaven’s John P. Freeman Optional School, received a Milken Award during the 2018-19 school year. 

Stephens called the experience “exhilarating” and “empowering.”

She was excited to see that Wednesday’s award recipient, Kirsch, was from Whitehaven.

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I want to make my future TEN TIMES BETTER!

Kylea Spradley

I am currently a sophomore studying Biomedical Engineering at the University of Memphis. I also work as a success coach for Peer Power at East High School and I absolutely adore my job. The satisfaction from helping and encouraging young scholars is an overwhelmingly positive feeling that fills me with determination to constantly do better not only in my educational life, but in my personal life too. I take great pride walking into East High School knowing that I am not only a resource for the students, but also a mentor. I am that friend to talk to when something is going on, or even the outside opinion on a situation that shines the light onto a new viewpoint.

Peer Power to me is helping motivate students to graduate on time, and with dignity. Peer Power to me means inspiring that scholar to take the ACT again and raise their score, even if it is just by one more point. That one point can be the difference of a 2,000-dollar scholarship for college. Peer Power to me is getting the students excited for the endless possibilities past graduation, whether it be college or joining the work force. Peer Power to me is igniting the fire of determination and motivation under every student, and to welcome them into our world, post high school, with arms wide open, as that shoulder to lean on, as that support system when they need it.

Another reason why I love Peer Power so very much, is that it helps me to revisit old topics that I may have forgotten about when I was in high school. In turn, it benefits me in my college classes. As a biomedical engineering student, I take a ton of math classes. As a math success coach at East High, I get a refresh on topics that I haven’t seen in a long while, And if I am able to explain a topic, such as proofs in Geometry or absolute value functions in Algebra 2, to a student who may or may not have seen said topic before and for the students to understand it even just a little better, then I know that I fully understand the topic myself.

The relationships I have built during my time as a success coach at East High School are ones I will remember forever. Whether it be with my team leads, my teacher, students, and even other success coaches, the entirety of it all feels like a second family. I know that I have a support system at Peer Power, one that will always be there to pick me up when I am down, to congratulate me when I succeed, and one I can reply on in the future of my academic career.