When sixth grade math teacher Melanie Alfaro sat at an assembly at Deming Intermediate School, she had no idea she was about to be named the guest of honor.
Neither did the school.
Officials from the Milken Family Foundation paid a visit to Deming to surprise Alfaro with a $25,000 prize as part of this year’s Milken Educator Awards. The foundation gives the honor to fewer than 50 of the country’s top teachers each year. Alfaro said she was overwhelmed to receive the award.
“I don’t know if you saw me but I just kind of buckled down in tears because I could not comprehend what, I was understanding the severity of the award, but when they called my name I was just like ‘Wow.’ Overwhelmed. Overwhelmed and honored,” Alfaro said.
The awards have been hailed by Teacher magazine as the “Oscars” of teaching. Milken Senior vice-president Dr. Jane Foley, who is a 1994 Milken award-winner herself, said the committee looks for special criteria when selecting a teacher. That includes finding teachers in their early or mid-careers who are leaders and unsung heroes.
“You can see by the reaction of the students when they stand and they’re cheering and they’re stomping, she’s a role model,” Foley said. “We’re looking for someone who’s a role model and really influences everyone around them.”
Teachers cannot apply or be nominated for the honor, which is a secret until it’s announced. Christopher Ruszkowski heads up the New Mexico Public Education Department and attended the assembly as a distraction for the real ceremony.
“It was a fun, fun day to be the decoy… but we were here to celebrate Melanie and how exemplary she is and how outstanding she is,” Ruszkowski said.
Ruszkowski said Alfaro is a model example for improving student learning and achievement.
“When you have an exemplary teacher that’s getting student results, that has a voice in policy, and that is a leader in her community, that changes the conversation for our entire state, takes us out of a negative place and puts us into a positive place,” Ruszkowski said.
Alfaro is the head of the math department at the Deming Intermediate School. Milken said she “immerses her students in data, setting individual and whole-class goals, charging students with monitoring their own progress, and holding family classes to ensure parents are fully equipped to support their children’s efforts in math.”
Milken notes that Deming has jumped two letter grades and 16 percentage points in end-of-year math assessments in the past few years.
Alfaro now joins more than 2,700 educators who have received the award since 1987. She also wins a trip to Washington D.C. to meet with other Milken winners and come up with ways to further impact students and prepare them for the future.
“I do it because of you guys. I do it because I love children and I love having an impact on every single one of your lives,” Alfaro said. “From the kids I taught 10 years ago to those of you who are in my room right now. I do it because of you and I want you to remember that. I love all of you.”
Alfaro said when she started in the field, she wanted to be the kind of teacher she would like her own children to have. She said being recognized reassures her that the work she does in the classroom is paying off.
“It gives me a little comfort knowing that I am making a difference in these kids’ lives, and that is my goal in teaching is just to come in everyday and try to make a difference in their lives,” Alfaro said.
Student Micah Martinez, who is in Alfaro’s math class, said she enjoys having Alfaro as a teacher and was happy when she won.
“She makes it very exciting and she has posters and it’s very fun that we get to learn and she really has patience with us and she’s just a great math teacher and I think she really deserved it,” Martinez said.
While education is her top priority, Alfaro said her job has always been to teach her students more than just numbers and equations.
“I want to teach them about life, I want to teach them about giving back, teaching them about being good people,” Alfaro said. “And when they walk away from me I just want them to have a positive reflection on who Miss Alfaro was when they leave my classroom.”