Completing a master’s in curriculum and instruction from Baker University’s School of Education didn’t ignite Vanessa Thomson’s love and passion for teaching. That occurred when she was a precocious 6-year-old growing up in Blue Springs, Missouri.
What the Baker master’s degree did accomplish for Vanessa (Ayers) Thomson, MAEd 2013, she has no doubt, was make her a better teacher. That was validated last month when the Milken Family Foundation surprised Thomson, a second-grade teacher at Chapel Hill Elementary School in Gladstone, Missouri, with a Milken Educator Award, one of just a handful awarded to outstanding educators across the United States.
The Milken Educator Award is the nation’s preeminent teacher recognition program and hailed among educators as the “Oscars of Teaching.”
Thomson, in her 15th year at Chapel Hill, was surprised with the award at an assembly at her school January 19. In addition to the award, she received $25,000 and will make an all-expenses-paid trip this spring to Los Angeles to participate in an educators’ forum.
“I am so honored,” Thomson said in her acceptance speech. She was quick to spread praise to the rest of her team of educators at Chapel Hill. “I wouldn’t be doing this without this school and these kids and these educators. I’m the person I am because of them, because of the elementary teachers who encouraged me to be a teacher.”
Truly, that’s where it all began for Thomson as a teacher.
Thomson credits her first-grade teacher with noticing a shy and reserved young child, making her feel noticed and special and pulling her out of her shell.
“I loved my elementary school teachers,” Thomson said. “I decided I wanted to be a teacher in the first grade. I wanted [my students] to feel like they could be whatever they wanted to be in the world.”
Thomson said her parents encouraged her childhood aspirations by creating a little classroom for her in the family’s house, complete with a blackboard, desks, and a few books, and she’d invite her friends and neighborhood children over for impromptu lessons. She also had familial examples to follow. Her grandmother on her father’s side was a teacher, and she had an aunt and uncle who were college professors.
“I never wavered from wanting to be a teacher,” she said.
Thomson took classes in child development at Blue Springs High School and, after graduating, attended William Jewell in Liberty, Missouri, where she earned a bachelor’s in elementary education in 2008.
A few years into her teaching career at Chapel Hill—the only teaching job she’s known—Thomson heard from some colleagues about a master’s program at Baker. She discovered she could join a cohort program that met in the Northland in Kansas City as well as attend some classes online. It was the perfect way to further her education and enhance her teaching skills.
“What I loved about the program was it felt so teacher friendly,” she said. “Everything I learned I could apply to my classroom.”
Thomson said she especially valued the program’s writing curriculum.
“The writing course developed my love of writing and my strength in teaching writing,” she said. “Through my undergraduate work, writing was never my favorite or strongest area. But this course showed me a different way to teach writing.”
Putting the Knowledge to the Test
This new knowledge was evidenced by the great strides Thomson’s students have made in writing over the last several years. Some of her students’ work has been included in the curriculum and serves as a model for second graders across the district.
In addition, Thomson serves as facilitator for Chapel Hill’s leadership team by collaborating with administrators to set meeting agendas, by leading discussions, and by ensuring follow-up on school improvement goals and action steps. She also serves as a mentor to new and beginning teachers at her school. She inspires her students to engage in community service and work toward becoming active citizens. Her class performs random acts of kindness around the school and has raised funds for a local animal shelter. Thomson leads the school’s popular “Pie a Teacher” event, where students raise money for the United Way by selling pies to throw in teachers’ faces.
Identifying the Best Teachers
Thomson is the third graduate from Baker to receive a Milken Educator Award in the last 10 years. Ryan Pfeifer, ’13 MAEd, a teacher at Washburn Rural High School in Topeka, received the award last spring. And Bill Smithyman, ’04 MSEd, an English and language arts teacher in Overland Park, Kansas, was awarded in 2015.
“We are thrilled to see a student who attended Baker University receive the Milken Award,” said Verneda Edwards, EdD, dean of Baker’s School of Education. “The graduate programs at Baker University work to identify the best practitioners to serve as faculty, those individuals who stand out in their field. Their credentials and ability to share their real-life experiences make the educational experience at Baker first rate.”
Striving to identify the best teachers. That seems to be the common thread between Baker and the Milken Educator Award.
The morning following her Milken Award presentation, Thomson said she brought a box of donuts in for her students. When one student commented on how much the donuts must have cost, another student said, “It’s OK. She’s rich.”
At this point, Thomson says she has no idea how she’ll spend the $25,000. Her husband and 4-year-old son might have some say.
“I guess we’ll put it into savings and go from there,” she said.
In one aspect of her life, there is no uncertainty, however. She won’t be leaving her Chapel Hill students anytime soon.
“My love has always been working with kids,” Thomson said. “I could never see myself leaving the classroom.”
The classroom will always be the better for that.
All photos credit: Milken Family Foundation