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 must always work harder than others.

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.