November 05, 2003
Astonished Millikan High School teacher Nader Twal received a $25,000 surprise award from the Milken Family Foundation today during an all-school assembly. The announcement drew a roar of approval from thousands of students. Dubbed the "Oscars of Teaching" by Teacher Magazine, the Milken National Educator Awards recognize America’s best teachers.
The English and philosophy teacher earned the national honor as a highly talented, inspirational educator whose classroom practices are among the best in the U.S. Twal may spend the cash prize as he pleases. He appeared stunned by the honor and all the attention.
"I woke up this morning and was just trying to fix my lesson so I could allow my kids to come to this assembly. Then I come here and walk out with a down payment on a house," Twal said to a cheering audience of students and colleagues. "This feels very surreal right now."
He thanked his students and fellow educators at Millikan, where he has taught for six years. Twal, a 29-year-old Jordanian American raised in Saudi Arabia, overcame kidney failure about two years ago. He continued to teach despite his life-threatening illness. He attributed his success to the strong support of Millikan’s staff and his ecstatic students, who applauded, cried and hugged one another when his selection for the top award was announced.
"I consider the people at this school as more than friends. I consider them to be family," Twal said. "I feel that I represent all the people here – the people who push, who aren’t satisfied with the mediocre – the people who are not willing to let anyone fall through the cracks."
Milken Family Foundation Chairman Lowell Milken announced the prize.
"I happen to believe that teachers and principals have the most important job in the country," Milken said. "Greatness in education should be recognized. The good work this school is doing would not have come to our attention if it were not for the many, many outstanding educators at Millikan. I wish we could present this award to every one of them. I’m confident that if this school’s API (Academic Performance Index) keeps increasing like it has, we’ll be back to present another award very soon."
Milken said his foundation scoured the nation to find Twal, who is "truly an individual of integrity and compassion."
Twal said he teaches character. He expects and gets respect and rigor from struggling students, average students and high achievers. He developed literacy materials that were adopted throughout the school district. He requires seniors to create PowerPoint presentations in his Bible as Literature class, and holds mock trials of Old Testament prophets and kings. His students regularly show impressive growth on quarterly assessments and significant improvement in reading scores compared to national norms – an average of three grade levels of growth. He also helped design and implement the school’s popular PEACE Academy, which helps college-bound students become competitive in a diverse world and global economy.
Joining in the prize celebration were State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell and NFL legend Rosey Grier, who is a Milken Family Foundation trustee.
O’Connell visited the Long Beach Unified School District less than a week ago to celebrate its winning of the $500,000 Broad Prize for Urban Education, recognizing America’s top urban school system for closing achievement gaps among various ethnic and socioeconomic groups. Long Beach is the most diverse large city in the nation, according to the U.S. Census.
"What a special week, and what a special day for your school," O’Connell told the Millikan audience. "Talk about a school district on the rise – a district that’s going in the right direction. Last week you were recognized as the best urban school district in the country, and now this. It’s fun for me to race up and down the state and take credit for your hard work."
Grier, a minister and motivational speaker, had the audience chanting, "We can change the world."
"When I look at your faces, I have great hope," Grier said. "We all have an important role to play. It doesn’t matter what color you are. All that matters is that you give your best. And the best is in you. You have the ability to change the world for the better."
Twal’s students said he already has changed their world for the better.
"This was so great. It was awesome," Cecelia Pinel, a senior in Twal’s philosophy class, said after the assembly. "He doesn’t just give us the work. He explains it. He really throws himself into the work and shares his life experiences with us so that we really understand the material."
Classmate Raul Valladares said he predicted that the assembly was called to honor Twal.
"I told Mr. Twal to get his speech ready, but he didn’t believe me," Valladares said. "I just found it amazing that he came to class when he had kidney failure. He gained about 50 pounds that one week because of the fluid build-up in his body, but he sat in his chair and delivered our lesson. He’s beyond dedicated to his students. I’m so glad that his dedication is getting the proper recognition."
The national Milken awards go to elementary and secondary school teachers, principals and other education professionals who are furthering excellence in education. By honoring outstanding educators, the program strives to attract talented people to the high calling of teaching.
The awards are announced each fall at surprise notifications, held in all-school assemblies.
From its original presentation of awards to a dozen California educators, the program has grown to national stature with 47 participating states. Nearly 2,000 outstanding kindergarten through 12th-grade teachers, principals, counselors, librarians, and other specialists have been recognized with unrestricted individual Milken Educator Awards of $25,000.
The criteria for selection include the following:
• Exceptional educational talent as evidenced by outstanding instructional practices in the classroom, school and profession;
• Outstanding accomplishment and strong long-range potential for professional and policy leadership; and
• Engaging and inspiring presence that motivates and impacts students, colleagues and the community.
For more information about the Milken Educator Awards, visit www.mff.org.