Perry Township teacher wins $25,000 Milken Award for leadership and innovative practices

A woman in a white shirt and gray sweater stand surrounding by children in an auditorium as other children and adults mill about.
Second grade teacher Brittany Tinkler, center, greets her students and Jane Foley, left, senior vice president of the Milken Awards, at Rosa Park Elementary after winning the prestigious $25,000 prize. (Amelia Pak-Harvey / Chalkbeat)

Brittany Tinkler showed up to work at Rosa Parks Elementary on Wednesday thinking she would take her second grade students to a regular school assembly. 

She ended the school-wide celebration shaking as she clutched a $25,000 check.

The Perry Township teacher is one of 35 educators nationwide to receive the latest round of the prestigious Milken Awards, created by businessman and philanthropist Lowell Milken in 1987 to spotlight the importance of teaching.

The award has provided over $73 million to educators to date in $25,000 amounts, and 67 Indiana teachers have received one so far. In November, Angela Fowler, a fourth grade teacher in Johnson County, also received the prize

Tinkler, herself a graduate of Perry Township schools, received the honor for showing leadership among her colleagues and students. She dedicated time to train fellow educators on innovative education practices, exposing her students to different careers, and even starting an after-school running club, according to an Indiana Department of Education press release.

“Money aside, to get this award fills my soul,” Tinkler said. “It’s like winning the lottery for my soul.”

Tinkler is a homegrown teacher who graduated from Perry-Meridian High School, where she also met her husband. She has taught in Perry Township for 11 years. 

She has brought community organizations to the school — including the local zoo, a radio station, and a fire station — so that students can widen their future career possibilities, the education department said. 

She has also embraced project-based learning and shared the practice with fellow educators through presentations, articles, and podcasts, the department said. And her students have shown more growth in English and math, as measured by state exams, than district students on average. 

The selection process for the award is secretive and does not accept applications. “You don’t find us, we find you,” said Jane Foley, senior vice president of the Milken Awards. 

The Milken Family Foundation, which funds the award, partners with state departments of education to find teachers that best meet certain criteria: Educators must be early- to mid-career, find innovative ways to teach students, and be a leader and role model for students and colleagues, Foley said. 

Recipients must also be an “unsung hero,” Foley said. 

“We’re looking for people who haven’t sought accolades that are doing this amazing work with these great results, that haven’t sought out awards,” Foley said.

Tinkler could barely stand when Foley announced her name at the assembly — but one of her second graders lent a hand to help her up to accept the award.

“This is still not real,” Tinkler said after the assembly. “Because I just come to work and I’m me. I’m me everywhere I go. So to think that I should get an award for that isn’t anything that ever crosses my mind.”

Tinkler’s academic struggles as a child led her to pursue education, she said. 

“When I got into high school after all of this struggling I officially decided I was going to become an educator so that I can help students feel successful and find what it is they’re good at, so I can bring that out of them at a young age,” she said.

She will funnel a large part of her award right back into her classroom to make more “rich learning experiences” for her students, Tinkler said. She also hopes to use the funding to better the lives of her own two children. 

But to Tinkler, the award was worth much more than $25,000.

“It’s affirmation that who I am and my why and my story is a great reason to be doing what I’m doing,” she said. “That I’m living out my purpose, and that I’m living it out well.”

Amelia Pak-Harvey covers Indianapolis and Marion County schools for Chalkbeat Indiana. Contact Amelia at apak-harvey@chalkbeat.org.

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