By Kenna Caprio
It was all a ruse — the reason for the school assembly, that is. An elaborate ploy that only the staff of the Milken Educator Awards was in on, and in this case, the Ocean Township School District principal.
Like nearly everyone else present, fourth-grade teacher and Fairleigh Dickinson University alumnus Patrick O’Neill thought the school was merely hosting a visit from state Commissioner of Education Chris Cerf. Turns out, the real reason the entire school gathered was to honor O’Neill as an outstanding educator.
“I just go out and try to be better everyday,” says O’Neill later in an interview. “Millions of teachers out there are just as deserving.”
Honoring teachers in the early-to-mid stages of their career who are working at the elementary or secondary level, the Milken Educator Awards highlight “outstanding teachers — unsung heroes,” says Jana Rausch, spokeswoman for the Milken Family Foundation.
It took the shell-shocked O’Neill more than a moment to gather himself, stand up and take the microphone after Jane Foley, senior vice president, Milken Educator Awards announced him as the winner.
“Milken educators are very humble. Patrick took the microphone and credited other teachers, including his parents and wife, who teaches first grade,” says Foley.
O’Neill knew he wanted to go into education as he grew up watching his mom, a special education teacher, and his dad, a coach and physical education teacher. “It’s a great life,” he says. Originally of West Long Branch, N.J., the now 31-year-old knew that nearby Fairleigh Dickinson University offered him the opportunity to play football and pursue a bachelor’s/master’s degree combo in five years.
In his classroom at Ocean Township Elementary School, O’Neill has been known to teach spelling by writing in shaving cream on his own desk. These unconventional teaching methods help engage his students.
“I sing, I dance, I joke around with the kids. I think humor is a huge thing in the classroom — if they’re laughing and having fun they don’t realize they’re learning,” says O’Neill. “A lot of kids see school as a place where they don’t want to go, or that they’re made to go to. I try to make school a place where they want to be.”
O’Neill is responsible for more than just fun and engagement in the classroom. Since 2007, science and math test scores have been on the rise in his classes, according to the Milken Educator Awards website. A proponent of adding technology to lessons, O’Neill also tutored a student undergoing treatment for Hodgkin’s lymphoma and leukemia via Skype. He communicated with her teachers at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Tennessee, keeping her updated. Once she was healthy enough to come home, O’Neill tutored her there.
He’s exactly the caliber of teacher the foundation seeks to award. “They’re a role model for the students, community and profession,” says Foley, a 1994 Milken Educator Award recipient herself.
After the presentation, a woman in the crowd — whose teenage son had O’Neill back in the fourth grade — came up to Foley to tell her a story. The woman was struck by the fact that her 16-year-old and a friend had been talking animatedly days before about what they had learned in O’Neill class. “That’s the kind of influence a Milken educator has,” Foley says.
Winners, selected in part by blue ribbon committees created by each state’s department of education, receive a check for $25,000 and access to the foundation’s network of educators. Some go onto influence community, state and federal education policy. “In many ways, it’s a launching pad,” says Rausch.
Previous winners have used the funds to put a down payment on a house, adopt a child, continue their education or pay off student loans. O’Neill says he and his wife are still deciding how to use the money, but may put some towards student loans.
“Lowell Milken (co-founder) and the foundation created the awards to say, in a very public way, that outstanding teachers have the most important job in this country,” Rausch says. “They wanted to create an inspirational awards program to elevate and activate the profession and to inspire young capable people to join the profession.”
The Milken Family Foundation was established in 1982 and the first Milken Educator Awards presented in 1987 to a handful of California teachers. “As the program grew, so did the breadth of educators,” says Rausch. Now, the awards honor teachers from across the country. The foundation has given out more than 2,500 awards, totaling approximately $63 million.
“When you have a kid that can't hit a curve ball, or a kid who can't read or multiply and you teach them, you understand accomplishment,” O’Neill says. “It makes me want to get up and go to school, work and practice in the morning.”