It could have been a typical Monday morning for Becky Streff.
Surrounded by students, Streff sat quietly in the bleachers at North Bend Elementary School — unaware of the honor that was coming her way.
Then her name was announced.
She’d been selected to receive a $25,000 Milken Educator Award.
“I was sure they were talking about someone else,” she said, later. “It couldn’t have been me.”
But it was.
And amid applause from a host of school, city and other dignitaries, Streff left the bleachers to receive one of the awards described by Teacher magazine as the “Oscars of Teaching.”
Streff is the only teacher from Nebraska to receive the 2018-19 award and one of only 33 nationwide. Precious few people knew ahead of time that she’d receive the honor during the assembly and Streff was very surprised.
“I’m in shock, very humbled and speechless — honored to receive this award,” the fifth-grade teacher said. “I look forward to the adventure and the learning that will transpire.”
Streff was quick to commend her colleagues — saying the award easily could have gone to one of her fellow teachers.
“We have an awesome staff where we’re always pushing each other,” she said. “We have a book club going that meets once or twice a month. We talk about students’ learning and what we can do to help them be successful in regard to reading or to math.”
Greg Gallagher, Milken Family Foundation program director, and Matthew L. Blomstedt, Nebraska Commissioner of Education, presented the award.
Milken educators are selected in early to mid-career for what they have achieved and the promise of what they will accomplish, the foundation said in a prepared statement.
Besides the $25,000 unrestricted cash prize, the honor includes membership in the National Milken Educator Network, a group of more than 2,700 top teachers, principals and specialists dedicated to strengthening education.
The 2018-19 recipients also will attend a Milken Educator Forum in New Orleans from March 21-24.
Former recipients have used their awards to fund their children’s education or their own continuing education. Others have financed dream field trips, established scholarships and even funded the adoption of children.
A few past award recipients attended the surprise presentation.
“It completely changed my life. Get ready for the ride,” said Jon Pickinpaugh, who earned the honor in 2017-18 and now teaches at Omaha Nation High School in Macy.
Kenton Mann, a 1996 recipient, now a professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, also expressed encouragement.
“You’ve got a lot to be proud of,” Mann told Streff before the crowd.
Streff’s students consistently exceed average math, reading and science scores on state assessments, and a majority exceed grade-level standards in all areas, a foundation press release stated.
The foundation cited her creative thinking and educational innovation as a major reason why students exceed the standards.
In comments about Streff’s strengths as a teacher, the foundation highlighted a persuasive writing unit in which she asked students to craft arguments for or against offering chocolate milk in schools.
Nutritionists visited her classroom to talk about added sugar in common beverages and students did their own research as well. They presented their arguments to multiple panels, including parents, community members and media.
Streff planned the unit collaboratively with the school’s fourth- and sixth-grade teachers and the writing unit crossed over to enhance the students’ reading, science, math and speaking skills.
“Becky is a great example of what it means to be an outstanding teacher,” Blomstedt said. “She always engages her students and her fellow teachers to be the best they can be both inside and outside of the classroom.”
North Bend Central Superintendent Dan Endorf commended Streff as well.
“Mrs. Streff is confident in her abilities,” Endorf said. “An example of her self-confidence is the development of a classroom project for the district titled Writer’s Café, in which adults visited school to hear the personal writings of her students. Mrs. Streff continually develops grant proposals, introduced a fifth-grade graduation ceremony, and presents student achievement data to her colleagues on her own volition.”
In other comments, the foundation highlighted Streff’s strengths and activities, which include:
- Mentoring first-year teachers.
- Working with Nebraska’s Educational Service Unit 2 for professional development.
- Attending STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) workshops and conference to upgrade the school’s science curriculum.
- Coaching the Future Problem Solvers team, a small group of high-achieving students, as well as junior high track and volleyball.
- Serving as co-leader of the school’s PBIS (Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports) team and the school improvement committee.
- Using Google Classroom to prepare students for the systems they will encounter in the high school building
- Updating parents via the Remind and Bloomz apps.
Streff earned a bachelor’s degree in elementary education in 2004 and a master’s of teaching, learning and teacher education 2008 from the University of Nebraska, plus a master’s in educational leadership in 2013 from Doane University.
Among officials attending the surprise assembly was Lt. Gov. Mike Foley and Streff’s husband, Ken, who serves on the North Bend City Council and is a teacher and coach at North Bend Central Junior-Senior High School.
The Streffs have four children: Philip, 9; Isabella, 7; Julia, 5; and Kevin, 2 months.
“None of us woke up this morning having any clue what was happening,” Ken Streff said. “I was invited down here as a city councilman and I thought I’d be sitting there as a bump on a log—and I almost fell over.”
Streff complimented his spouse.
“She’s an amazing teacher,” he said, smiling. “She’s a heck of a mother and she puts up with me. I’m busy doing coaching and teaching.”
While still absorbing what had just happened Monday morning, Becky Streff talked about her students.
“I love learning with the students and working with them,” she said. “I don’t have all the answers. They give me answers. We talk. I truly believe that teaching them is a teamwork process. We’re learning together.
“They have so much energy,” she added. “They have such smart brains and I love listening everything they share and say.”