TIMONIUM – Kelly Smith didn’t realize she was going to be the featured guest — or $25,000 richer — when she arrived at a school assembly Thursday morning.
The Dulaney High School English teacher received the Milken National Educator Award, which recognizes outstanding teachers across the nation each year with unrestricted cash prizes, at a surprise ceremony in the school’s auditorium.
This is “quite a surprise party,” Smith said to the excited students, teachers and state and county leaders, after composing herself from the initial shock of hearing her name called.
The Milken National Educator Awards are the country’s biggest teacher recognition program. It has awarded more than $50 million to more than 2,100 winners since the program began in 1987. The Milken Family Foundation was established to recognize and attract quality teachers to careers in education, said foundation Chairman Lowell Milken.
“I believe that teachers have the most important job in our country,” said Milken. “They have the responsibility of preparing all of you for a bright future.”
The foundation works with each state’s department of education to identify award recipients.
“I know the teachers that get up everyday and work so hard . . . I’m just one teacher,” Smith said. “When you look around there are so many talented teachers in Baltimore County . . . I feel humbled.”
Smith, 40, has been teaching in Baltimore County Public Schools for 18 years. After getting her bachelor’s degree at Towson University in 1988, Smith taught at Patapsco High School. She came to Dulaney in 2002 and, as head of the English department, has been responsible for many of the school’s innovative programs, according to Principal Lyle Patzkowsky.
“It’s constantly, ‘How do we make it better?'” Patzkowsky said. “And ‘How can we best help students?’ That’s what Kelly is all about.”
Smith pioneered such programs as “One Book, One Dulaney,” a summer reading program that got students, parents and teachers all reading and discussing the same book.
She developed Advancement Via Individual Determination, which identifies challenged students and supports them throughout their high school career with the goal of attending college.
Smith also serves as Dulaney’s SAT liaison, leading SAT “breakfast clubs” and Saturday study sessions.
“She really deserved it. She’s really cool,” said Megan Hunkovic, a senior in Smith’s SAT prep course. “She sits down with the individual student and she’ll talk with you about what you’re having trouble with — she seems like she’s talking to one of her kids.”
“Being a teen is very difficult and I think that’s probably what drives me the most,” said Smith of her students. “(I try) to somehow get in there and make what’s going on in the classroom relevant.”
“Middle school and high school are totally different settings and she tried to make you comfortable,” said Carla McGibboney, a 12th-grader who had Smith for freshmen English.
“She understands being in ninth-grade. It’s hard coming from a different setting . . . She has a lot of patience. For her to come to work everyday and always wear a smile, always happy, always energetic, always chipper . . . it’s amazing.”
Smith lives in Lutherville with her three children — 11, 8 and 4 — and her husband, who’s also a teacher.
“Our whole world revolves around teaching,” she said.
In addition to the $25,000 prize, Smith will travel to the District in May where she’ll participate in the Milken National Education Conference, an opportunity to meet with fellow award winners and discuss national education goals and strategies for the country.
Among Smith’s ideas is a “smaller learning community” with a lower ratio of teachers to students.
“You have to live up to an award like this,” she said, “I want to do more.”