Two Johnson County teachers were surprised Thursday with national educator awards that each come with a $25,000 prize.
Blue Valley West social studies teacher Alex Lahasky and Gardner-Edgerton social studies teacher Matt Mayeske were both presented with Milken Educator Awards during schoolwide assemblies on their respective campuses.
They’re two of roughly 75 teachers across the U.S. expected to receive the Milken Educator Awards this year.
Lahasky, himself a 2009 graduate of Blue Valley West, said he had “no idea” he was going to receive the award, adding that he “certainly didn’t expect this.”
Lowell Milken, chair of the Milken Family Foundation and founder of the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching, was on hand at both schools, along with Kansas Education Commissioner Randy Watson and district officials, to present the awards. U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids was able to attend the celebration at Blue Valley West, as well.
For Bill Smithyman, the instructional coach at Blue Valley West and a former recipient of the Milken award, there was no surprise that Lahasky won.
“Alex, you embody excellence,” Smithyman said during Thursday’s assembly. “Students, you can look at this teacher and see excellence exemplified.”
Lahasky known for song parodies that help students learn
Lahasky teaches juniors, both in U.S. History and AP U.S. History.
For his students, he writes parodies of popular music and rap songs to feature elements of the units they’re studying and sends them out, particularly ahead of tests. (That includes a review of American history “from Plymouth to the pandemic” retold to the classic rock tune “American Pie.”)
“It’s kind of a study break for students and hopefully bring a smile to them,” he said. “They make me look a little bit silly, but hopefully it gets them a little bit more interested in what they’re learning about.”
In addition to teaching, Lahasky serves on the faculty’s Advisory Leadership Team, mentors new teachers and is an assistant baseball coach.
He earned a degree from William Carey University in social science and secondary education in 2014 and earned a master’s degree in history from Pittsburg State University in 2016.
“I think students respond to teachers who are passionate,” he said, which is why tries to model his passion for history and education by “just coming to work every day and putting in the hours and doing my best.”
How does the Milken Educator Award work?
Milken, an entrepreneur, first started his educator awards nearly 40 years ago, inspired by some of his teachers who shaped him.
“Good teachers really do make a difference,” Milken said. “While our country does so many things well, one thing we don’t do well enough, that’s honor, celebrate and recognize talented teachers.”
From that mindset, the Milken Educator Award was born, and over the years, nearly 3,000 teachers nationwide have received it.
The selection process for the award is secretive, Milken said. During his remarks at the assembly, he noted that teachers cannot apply for the Milken Educator Award — part of what makes it such a surprise when they learn they’ve received it.
However, Milken did say that the award is geared more toward educators who are at the beginning or toward the middle of their careers. There are also a few traits and characteristics the Milken Family Foundation is looking for in recipients.
“First and foremost, we’re looking for individuals who are strong instructional leaders, that’s an absolute necessity. We also want educators who are mentors to other teachers, who are invested in their community,” he said as well.
Over the summer, Lahasky, Mayeske and other educators from the 2023-2024 class of Milken Educator Award winners will travel to Los Angeles for the Milken Educator Awards Forum. The foundation covers the full cost of the trip, according to a news release.
Mayeske wears many hats at Gardner-Edgerton
Mayeske teaches freshmen and sophomores, focusing on geography and world history.
The Milken Foundation said Mayeske “employs a dynamic teaching approach to engage his students and position them for success,” specifically citing his practice of using a yearlong roleplaying game in which students create characters that guide them through simulated activities through each historical period covered in class.
He is a 2018 MidAmerica Nazarene University grad, and he completed a master’s degree specializing in English for Speakers of Other Languages in 2020 from Pittsburg State University.
In addition to teaching, Mayeske is the sponsor for the school’s Diversity Club, Geography Club, Table Gaming Club, Anime Club, the Ping Pong Club and Climate and Culture Committee. He is also the announcer for various school sporting events and a track coach.
Like Lahasky, Mayeske is a former student of the school he now teaches at, Gardner Edgerton High School.
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