COLUMBIA, SC — An ordinary schoolwide assembly was transformed into a thunderous pep rally Thursday when Dutch Fork Middle School teacher Kristi Grooms learned she was the winner of a $25,000 Milken Educator Award, a national honor that places her in a prestigious fraternity of top teachers around the country.
“I thought I was going to an assembly on bullying,” an incredulous Grooms said, as she wiped away tears of joy.
The 32-year-old eighth-grade language arts teacher was stunned as state superintendent of education Mick Zais called her name and brought her forward to help unravel a giant paper facsimile of a $25,000 check.
“This is going to change my life so much,” said Grooms, a Cheraw native who earned a bachelor’s degree in English and a masters in teaching from the University of South Carolina. “I’m an English teacher, and I make my living with words, and I can’t think right now what to say.”
The awards are known as the “Oscars of teaching,” and enable the chosen educator also to participate in a range of education projects supported by the California-based Milken Family Foundation, a nonprofit founded in 1982 by brothers Lowell and Michael Milken. The foundation primarily supports education and medical research and has been giving education awards to elementary and secondary educators since 1985.
The foundation said the awards focus on “early-to-mid-career education professionals for their already impressive achievements and, more significantly, for the promise of what they will accomplish in the future.” Throughout the month of December, Milken executives tour the United States to unveil the awards. The element of surprise is key to the presentations, which are traditionally awarded in front of the student body.
“You can’t apply for this,” said Gary Stark, president and CEO of the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching, an organization founded by Lowell Milken and supported by the Milken Family Foundation. “We find you.”
Zais clearly relished his role in the surprise element, reminding students of the power of extraordinary teachers, and urging them to consider a career in teaching. He was joined by Lexington-Richland 5 schools superintendent Steve Hefner, school board members and other dignitaries, including some past Milken winners.
“This is one of the most fun things I do,” Zais said. “It’s inspirational. It’s uplifting.”
Grooms, who has spent her decade in teaching at Dutch Fork Middle, acknowledged the incredible power of her mentor, seventh-grade English teacher Mary Wells. Grooms did her student teaching under Wells, who recalled Grooms as someone who could walk into a classroom and immediately take over.
“It’s a special thing to love middle school students,” said Wells, who retired from the Lexington-Richland 5 school but has returned as a long-term substitute.
Students said Grooms makes studying language arts exciting and relevant.
“She does a lot of ‘today’ activities, things that relate to what we are doing today,” said Emma Bagley, 14. In one instance, the students took a scene from a story and drew it as a Snapchat, she said.
Grooms, who is chairwoman of the language arts department at Dutch Fork, already was one of 20 teachers selected for the Vladka Meed Summer Program for Teachers of the Holocaust and Jewish Resistance. She traveled for three weeks in Poland and Israel, and studied at the National Institute for Holocaust Studies in Jerusalem to enhance her classroom teaching of the Holocaust. Grooms also has coached basketball and softball and organized an annual trip to Washington, D.C., for eighth graders, which has become an annual tradition at Dutch Fork.
Seventh-grader Landon McAfee has yet to have Grooms for a teacher but thought the award was “amazing.”
“I’m just excited for her,” the 13-year-old said. “I have a great opinion of every teacher in this school.”
South Carolina has participated in the awards program since 1994 and now can claim 54 recipients. Educators are recommended for the award by a panel appointed by each state’s Department of Education.
At a reception following the announcement, Grooms put her mother, Kathy Grooms, on speaker phone to break the news of her award.
“Mama, it’s $25,000,” Kristi Grooms said. “What?” her mother asked.
“I’m crying like a baby,” the ecstatic teacher said.
“So am I,” her mother replied. “I’m so proud of you.”