ST. LOUIS —Dubbed as “the Oscars of Teaching,” two St. Louis-area educators Friday were each surprised with a $25,000 Milken Educator Award that publicly recognizes excellence in teaching and professional leadership.
The gymnasium at Hardin Middle School (HMS) in the City of St. Charles School District erupted in applause and cheers from students, teachers and staff when seventh-grade English Language Arts (ELA) teacher Leah Lawrence’s name was announced during the school’s assembly.
“For those who know me know that I’m never at a loss for words, but right now I’m feeling at a loss for words,” Lawrence said.
Missouri Commissioner of Education Margie Vandeven and Milken Educator Awards Vice President Stephanie Bishop first presented Lawrence with her Milken Award, along with State Board of Education members and past award recipients.
The prestigious award comes with an unrestricted cash prize of $25,000 and an all-expense paid trip to Los Angeles for the Milken Educator Awards Forum where recipients can network with educational leaders on how to broaden their impact on K-12 education.
Lawrence creates innovative ways for her students to explore ELA; shows young writers how to perceive constructive criticism; guides students through their own ELA goals and individual growth; incorporates instructional techniques in her classroom; promotes healthy competition among students through engaging classroom games; among other classroom initiatives.
“I am humbled by this and I’m still a little bit shocked,” she said. “To be chosen for this is an incredible honor and honestly, I don’t know if I really deserve it, but thank you.”
Lawrence additionally serves as a mentor to new teachers, is the ELA department chair at HMS, is an active member of HMS’ climate committee, the district professional committee, and has participated in numerous other initiatives at the school over the course of her career.
Lawrence said she was inspired to become a teacher because of her grandma who also was a beloved educator in the City of St. Charles School District. She told Spectrum News that the most rewarding part of being a teacher is when her past students share how much she changed their lives.
To be recognized on a national level for her hard work and dedication “makes me feel like I’m on the right track. I’m doing what I need to be doing and I’m making a difference like I hoped I always had,” Lawrence said.
She additionally is commended for the strong relationships she has built with students, families and community members, as well as being an approachable resource for parents throughout the school year. Ahead of state testing, Lawrence writes each student a letter of encouragement.
Lawrence earned her BA in English education in 2007, her MA in education in 2012 and an education specialist degree in school administration in 2016 from Lindenwood University.
“The hard work that Leah does every day to use both creativity and data to drive her instruction and her students succeed is so exciting,” Vandeven said.
The second Milken Award in Missouri was presented to eighth-grade social studies teacher Meghan Menchella at Crestview Middle School in Rockwood School District.
Students, teachers and staff burst into applause and cheers for Menchella when her name was announced during the school’s assembly.
“I feel so honored and grateful to be recognized here today,” Menchella said. “Thank you, thank you, thank you so much for this huge honor.”
She makes U.S. history come alive in her classroom by creating a crime scene during a unit on the Boston Massacre and a courtroom for teaching about the Salem Witch Trials. Menchella pursues ways for students to see themselves in the curriculum and piques their interest by reading the Declaration of Independence as a romantic breakup letter.
“I do want to say to the staff at Crestview, you all raised me to be the educator that I am today,” she said. “I am so thankful to work in a building with such fantastic staff.”
“To the students in front of us, you guys are the reasons that we come to school every day. There is somebody in this building who cares about you, who comes here for you and so we hope that you can see that and we’re grateful to have you in our classrooms.”
In preparation for a unit on the Civil War, Menchella attended a Black history conference, gathered a panel of students to offer input on readings and discussion topics and introduced constructive discussion skills to her students. This approach led to her students outperforming the district on the eighth-grade U.S. history assignments.
“I always knew that I wanted to be a teacher, in fact there was no other career that I considered,” she said. “I wanted a career that contributed to something bigger in the world.”
Menchella sits on the school leadership and district social studies curriculum teams, runs professional development for second-year teachers and works with pre-service teachers. She additionally helped incorporate student reflection into summative assessments, which is now used across grade levels at Crestview.
Menchella is a co-leader of the National Junior Honor Society and Crestview’s Leader in Me Student Lighthouse Team, as well as guides a mentor program that connects each student with a Crestview staff member and has coordinated the school’s eighth-grade trip to Washington, D.C.
“This award is an incredible honor. I feel as though every educator in this school deserves it and so I’m thankful that this award came to highlight everything Crestview Middle School is doing and how the teachers here are really impacting not only this generation, but future generations and past generations,” she said.
“I’m so thankful that this foundation is taking the time to recognize the work that teachers put in every single day.”
She earned a BA in middle school education with an emphasis on social studies in 2016 from Lindenwood University. She earned a Master of Science in education from Southwest Baptist University in 2018.
“The hard work that Meghan does every day to help educate the whole student in her classroom is truly inspiring to see,” Vandeven said.
Lawrence and Menchella are among 75 Milken Award recipients across the country for the 2023-24 season.