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Needham Elementary School math teacher surprised with $25,000 award

Tiffany Miera recognized for her commitment to educational improvement
Needham Elementary School teacher Tiffany Miera is caught by surprise after it was announced during a school assembly on Tuesday that she is a winner of the Milken Educator Award and a $25,000 cash prize. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

What appeared to be a run-of-the-mill assembly Tuesday at Needham Elementary School ended with a fifth grade math teacher being presented with a $25,000 check.

Tiffany Miera was given the Milken Educator Award, which recognizes teachers based on their commitment to improving educational standards and their likelihood to mentor other teachers. The award will be given to 40 elementary educators nationwide during the 2022-23 school year, each receiving $25,000 awards. The program was started by entrepreneur Lowell Milken, who was at Tuesday’s assembly to present the award.

Needham Elementary School teacher Tiffany Miera is congratulated by Lowell Milken after he announced that she is a winner of the Milken Educator Award and a $25,000 cash prize Tuesday during a school assembly. (Jerry McBride/Durango herald)

Over the past 35 years, more than $140 million in funding has been given away by the Milken Awards initiative, which include professional development opportunities throughout recipients’ careers.

Miera was shocked when her name was called during Tuesday’s assembly. She said she kept thinking about all the teachers in the room who were deserving of the award.

“I have the most amazing colleagues, administration and support. It’s just a shock,” she said. “I was going through all the teachers, ‘Oh, it could be this person or it has to be this person.’”

The teacher of 14 years recently finished a master’s degree in educational leadership at Southeastern Oklahoma State and is going to use some of the cash prize to pay off student loan debt. For Miera, it is all about the students. After receiving the award, she was most concerned about getting back to her class and making sure her students were ready to learn.

Miera is a Durango native who attended Needham Elementary and later graduated from Fort Lewis College with a bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies.

Superintendent Karen Cheser said Miera is a shining example of what teachers in the district strive to be.

“I love the recognition for all of the great work that teachers do for students in the district,” Cheser said.

Needham Elementary School teacher Tiffany Miera is surrounded by some of her students after it was announced Tuesday during a school assembly that she is a winner of the Milken Educator Award and recipient of a $25,000 cash prize. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Milken said Miera is an excellent instructional leader and her students have improved drastically from her teaching. Needham’s fifth grade math proficiency increased from 25.4% in 2019 to 42.9% in 2022, according to a news release from the Milken Family Foundation.

“We’re really looking for exceptional instructional practices,” Milken said. “And the second thing we’re looking for is an individual who can mentor other teachers.”

Milken said those chosen for the award are heavily evaluated before his team makes a decision. They research the candidate’s background, their students’ performance and how well they mentor other teachers.

It is important for Milken to offer the award to teachers who are either early or in the middle of their career.

“This is not a lifetime achievement award,” he said.

Almost 3,000 educators across the country have received the Milken Educator Award since its creation in 1987. Winning the award allows teachers to become part of a national network where they can make career connections.

The award is meant to be an incentive to keep teachers in the profession.

“We try to give a financial award in order to maybe help pay off bills or further their own education in some small way,” Milken said. “But it’s not about the money. It’s really about professional development.”

Milken said the inspiration for the award came from educators who had a profound influence on him while earning an education. He said 9-R has the potential to have many teachers receive awards.

From left, Patty Gleason, with the Colorado Department of Education; Colleen O’Neil, with the DOE; Tiffany Miera, recipient of the Milken Educator Award; Lowell Milken, founder of the Milken Educator Awards; and Karen Cheser, superintendent of Durango School District 9-R, present an oversized check to Miera, a Needham Elementary School teacher, during a school assembly Tuesday at the school. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Spotlighting a teacher’s work is something Cheser is also committed to. She wants to look at other ways the district can recognize teachers through state and national awards.

“Whether that’s state awards, national awards or maybe some recognition that we could create,” she said. “Any way to just honor more teachers, educators or even support staff. Anyone who is working crazy hard for these kids.”

She said awards may be given to one person but it takes a group effort for teachers to succeed.


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