This south Phoenix teacher just won the 'Oscar of teaching' — and $25,000

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A south Phoenix educator with a profound love for teaching was surprised with a $25,000 award on Thursday morning to celebrate her passion and commitment to teaching younger generations.

Ashley Meyer, a first and second grade teacher at Horizon Honors Elementary School, was the teacher who took home the first Milken Educator Award ever earned at the school. The prize, described as the "Oscar of teaching," is granted by the Arizona Department of Education and the Milken Family Foundation to educators who stand out state and nationwide for the quality and excellence of their classroom mentorship.

As Meyer was revealed to be the chosen teacher, the vibrant crowd of mostly young children burst out into a joyful ovation with kids cheering and stomping on the school gym's floor in celebration.

"I'm speechless, I'm shocked, I'm so grateful," Meyer said. "I thought today was just going to be a regular day, and here I am now. This is just a great experience."

The award and the $25,000 check prize were presented by Joshua Barnett, chief executive officer of the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching, also joined by Tom Horne, the Arizona superintendent of Education. Other people who were present at the event included colleagues, former recipients of the award, and other prominent educators.

Barnett said Thursday's event stood out for its dynamic crowd and the excitement in the members of the education community who attended.

"I think it was one of the most exciting assemblies that you could hope for to celebrate an educator," Barnett said. "It's important to celebrate educators because they truly transform opportunities for our students, there's no other profession that really provides an opportunity for every student to achieve their dreams."

Meyer said the award came as a huge surprise to her as she expected one of her colleagues, all of whom she said she admires and enjoys working with, to be this year's recipient of the award. She recalled before the announcement was made, she looked around the room and thought: "It could be anyone here!" she said.

"I was not expecting it at all," Meyer said. "I had my students right next to me, so that felt just so great, having them cheer me and be excited with me, and probably shocked with me, too."

Meyer described working as an elementary school teacher as a fun and exciting job where she feels she learns from her students just as much as they learn from her.

"(My students) are all so sweet, and every day I come in and it's a different day, and there are smiles on their faces and they're excited to see me," she said. "I love my job and I love working with children."

According to Barnett, Meyer's passion for making a positive impact on her students is one significant trait that made her stand out as she was being considered as a candidate for the award.

"We always look for educators who are making a difference in students' lives and moving students' opportunities," Barnett said. "(Meyer) came to us after we looked across the state. There's no application process, it's a chance to just learn about great educators, and there's a lot of great educators in Arizona, we just happen to be able to have an opportunity to celebrate Ashley today."

According to Horne, the award is given to educators in their early to mid-career to bring public recognition to the teaching profession and inspire students, other educators and the awardee to make meaningful contributions to K-12 education.

"Our future is in the hands of our teachers, and we have to recognize the great ones," Horne said. "We recognized a great teacher today, but she's symbolic of all the great teachers in the school, and all the teachers we have in our state."

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