WINFIELD — With a grin on her face, Erika Klose said on Monday there was “nothing better” than being a teacher at Winfield Middle School.
Klose, a seventh-grade science teacher, was surprised with a $25,000 award at a school assembly in front of students, staff and elected officials.
What started off as an assembly to celebrate the school’s efforts for raising funds for Breast Cancer Awareness Month quickly turned into a celebration of Klose’s efforts as a teacher. She was honored with the Milken Educator Award, which has been called the “Oscars of teaching.”
The award “not only aims to reward great teachers, but to celebrate, elevate and activate those innovators who are guiding America’s next generation of leaders,” according to the Milken Family Foundation website.
Only a small handful of school and elected officials who were present knew what was set to happen Monday morning. Klose had been asked to take pictures of the assembly to later post on the school’s Facebook page.
“I was just sitting on the floor taking pictures, taking the whole event in,” she told reporters after the event. “I was absolutely, completely surprised.”
Klose, a former geologist at the U.S. Geological Survey, has been teaching at Winfield Middle since 2008. She is the only teacher in West Virginia to win the Milken award this year. Fewer than 50 educators will receive the award this year.
Milken Educator Awards Senior Vice President Jane Foley presented the award to Klose, but not without first building some suspense.
“The Milken Award says in a very public way that greatness in education should be recognized, too. Outstanding educators are the backbone of every distinguished school, such as this. Only if we elevate the teaching profession will young people like you, here at Winfield Middle, consider a career in education. One teacher during his or her career has the power to positively influence thousands of young peoples lives,” Foley told students Monday morning.
Aside from the public recognition, Foley told students the winner would have the chance to attend a conference with other Milken Award winners in Washington, D.C., this spring and would be awarded $25,000 “for whatever they want.”
“There’s only one in West Virginia. So, we found an individual to represent the excellence of your school, your state and the country,” she said.
After Klose’s name was called as the winner, shocked students erupted into a loud cheer. They began to chant “Ms. Klose, Ms. Klose” as she went up to receive the award and check.
Klose also was joined by 11 previous West Virginia Milken Educator Award winners, including Steve Paine, the state superintendent of schools. Paine won the award in 1995 when he served as the principal of Buckhannon-Upshur Middle School in Upshur County. Representatives from the state and county school board, U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito and West Virginia first lady Cathy Justice were present and spoke at the event.
Klose told students she believed Winfield Middle School is the “best middle school in the state and in the country,” and said it’s all because of the educators in the building.
“[Students] have multiple role models in this building,” she said.
Klose said she left her job as a geologist because she wanted to inspire young people to enter the field she had fallen in love with.
“Most of the choices students make about their careers are really impacted by what they do in middle school — especially girls. Is science cool? Or is it not cool? And if it’s not cool, they shut it down as a possibility for their entire life,” she said.
Plus, she said, smiling, her enthusiasm in the classroom can only help pique their interest. Earlier this year, Klose led a school-wide effort to show more than 600 students the partial solar eclipse in a hands-on and entertaining way. Klose and her students also won $10,000 last school year during the Day of Coding, which went toward classroom supplies.
“I think a lot of it is, I have a whole lot of enthusiasm,” she said. “I’ve done science. And I think I can bring that to the students and say, ‘This is how real scientists do science.’ I try to keep it as real as I can, as exciting and fun as I can. And just keep them engaged.”
Immediately after she was done with interviews and photo opportunities, Klose grabbed her cellphone and called her mom to share the good news.
And what will the $25,000 go toward?
“I’m going to Disney World,” Klose said, laughing. “I’m not even kidding. I’m going next summer, but now it’s paid for.”