What started as a typical Monday at school quickly turned into a surprise for the ages for Rebecca Streff ’13E.
Streff, who received a Master of Education in Educational Leadership from Doane University, is a 5th grade reading and math teacher at North Bend Central Elementary School in North Bend, Nebraska.
The entire North Bend Central elementary school gathered the morning of Monday, March 4th for an assembly. Unsure exactly what was going on, Streff sat in the crowd with students, teachers, and staff as Nebraska Lieutenant Governor Mike Foley announced that someone in the crowd was the next recipient of the prestigious Milken Educator Award.
When Streff’s name was announced, she was in disbelief.
“I was shocked in that moment and I am still very shocked that I earned the award,” she said. “When they called my name I looked back to see if there was another Rebecca in the crowd. I think I was in a ‘baby brain fog,’ fresh out of maternity leave. I couldn’t believe it.”
The Milken Educator Awards, widely recognized as the “Oscars of Teaching,” recognizes top educators around the country with a $25,000 prize and a membership in the National Milken Educator Network, an elite group of more than 2,700 top teachers, principals, and specialists dedicated to strengthening education. Milken Educators are selected in early to mid-career for what they have achieved and for the promise of what they will accomplish
Founded by brothers Lowell and Mike Milken, the Milken Family Foundation has awarded Milken Educator Awards annually since 1987.
Lowell and Mike were inspired to give back to educators after crediting a great deal of their success as students and businessmen to two things -- their family and their teachers. Lowell and Mike were products of California Public Schools and went on to earn degrees from the University of California, Berkeley. The two realized that not everyone had the family support and teachers that they had and were inspired to provide similar opportunities and access they had to a larger group.
The first awards were given out to 12 educators in California in 1987 and they have since expanded nationally. The $25,000 prize has stayed true throughout the awards history, which is a unrestricted gift to the educator. The $25,000 amount was originally determined to get the public’s attention about why these teachers are so important and deserving of the award.
As Dr. Jane Foley, Senior Vice President of Milken Educator Awards at Milken Family Foundation notes, in 1987, a $25,000 gift either equaled or exceeded the average teacher’s annual salary. Even today, it is a large amount of money compared to what teachers make on an annual basis.
“To this day, it’s all about finding teachers that are highly accomplished, that are unsung heroes, that haven’t sought out the accolades, and tell them what they do is really important to their communities,” Foley said. “We want educators to stay in education because they have proven that they are indispensable to their students and the school.”
This year, 33 Milken Educator Awards were given to teachers across the country. The awards alternate between elementary teachers and middle school and high school teachers. To be eligible for the award, you must be a K-12 educator, principal, or specialist in a school building.
One unique aspect of the Milken Awards is that the Milken Family Foundation does not consider anyone who has been nominated for the award. In fact, it’s an automatic disqualification. Foley says that Lowell Milken wanted to seek out the “unsung educators,” similar to the ones he had. “He wanted to thank the educators who aren’t looking for recognition and are completely devoted to the profession and their students,” she said.
One reason Streff was in such disbelief at the school assembly is that she had never heard of the Milken Educator Awards before. Streff is the lone educator in Nebraska chosen this year and becomes the 5th Doane graduate to receive the award. Doane alumni to receive the award include: Dr. Kenton Mann ’75, Julie Martin ’82, ’93E ’03E, ’19E, Sara Robinson ’11E, and Kevin Witte ’00, ’02E.
Streff was selected for the award in large part due to her creative research project with her 5th graders on chocolate milk, in which students explored the pros and cons to having chocolate milk served in schools. After thorough research that included bringing in local experts (including a HyVee dietician and a diabetic), students presented their findings to parents and community members.
Streff’s project-based learning opportunity pushed students to improve a wide-array of skills, including reading, writing, math, science, and public speaking. As the Milken Family Foundation shares, “Streff’s brand of creative thinking and educational innovation is a big reason why her students consistently exceed grade levels averages in math, reading, and science.”
In addition to her teaching responsibilities, Streff mentors first-year educators, promotes professional development in the building, and has upgraded the school’s STEM curriculum.
“Becky Streff is a passionate teacher who fuels creative thinking and active engagement in her student’s lives. At the same time, she makes a real difference in the lives of her colleagues through constant collaboration. We proudly welcome Streff into the Milken educator family.”
Greg Gallagher, Milken Family Foundation program director
Streff graduated from Doane’s Educational Leadership program in 2013, which prepares educators for administrative roles such as principal and assistant principal. Students in the EdL program go through a cadre format, which keeps students in a group through the duration of the two-year program.
“I really enjoyed my experience at Doane,” Streff said. “I appreciated seeing a different picture of the education field and loved the cadre aspect. It was a small group of people that had common goals and it was amazing to see the friendships, bonding, and learning that can be had during that time.”
Streff, who has been with North Bend Public Schools since 2008, says that she looks forward to taking advantage of all the resources and offerings that come with being a Milken Educator.
In addition to becoming a member of the Milken Educator Network, Streff, along with the other 2018-19 recipients, attended a Milken Educator Forum in New Orleans from March 21-24, 2019. Educators had the opportunity to network with their new colleagues and hear from state and federal officials about maximizing their leadership roles to advance educator effectiveness.
For more information about Streff receiving a Milken Educator Award, visit her bio on the Milken Education Awards website.