National Award Winning Teacher: “Called to Something Bigger”

Jennie Schmaltz
Photo provided by the Milken Family Foundation

Last fall, third grade teacher Jennie Schmaltz attended an assembly... it was an ordinary day at Elkhart Elementary School in Aurora, Colorado.

Although she noticed cameras, lights, and special guests from her district, she didn’t think anything of it.

She assumed all the fanfare was for her school that was being recognized for its outstanding work and recent accomplishments. What she didn’t expect was that this assembly was hers and that her name would be called as the newest Milken Educator Award winner.

“It was a total surprise,” Jennie said. 

Photo provided by the Milken Family Foundation

A military spouse and mother of two, Jennie was completely shocked as she made her way to the front of the packed gymnasium, with students cheering her name like a rock star. And to these kids, Schmaltz is a rock star.

Following the announcement, which was accompanied by an oversized check for $25,000, local media fired off questions. One reporter inquired about her plans to spend the money. Jennie replied that she wasn’t sure, but anticipated using the money for some future projects at the school.

Lowell Milken, co-founder and chairman of the Milken Family Foundation that presents the award, heard Jennie’s response and politely corrected her that the money was not for her school, but for her. The $25,000 was to be spent on herself with no strings attached and no questions asked.

For 30 years, the Milken Educator Awards, have rewarded and inspired excellence in the world of education by honoring top educators around the country. Called the “Oscars of Teaching” by Teacher magazine, recipients receive access to powerful networking and development tools throughout their careers, in addition to the check. 

“It’s been a whirlwind of a year. Certainly very defining for me.”

Unlike some in education, Jennie took a different path to get here. Growing up she thought she’d become a sports journalist. During her undergraduate studies in athletic training, she was involved in several social justice projects, and she felt that there is nothing that levels the playing field like education, which has the power to improve lives and communities.

So she switched career tracks and graduated as a teacher. And what a difference she’s made.

Jennie has taught at Elkhart, a high-minority, high-poverty school, for 10 years and has touched the lives of hundreds of students and their families. Splitting duties as a third grade teacher and instructional coach for colleagues, she’s helped provide a needed boost in student achievement as well as helping to lower the school’s staff turnover rate.  

Following the award, Jennie knew that more was expected of her and this recognition would elevate her and her work to new heights.

“This is not an achievement award, but a call to do something bigger,” she said.

WGU Missouri Chancellor Angie Besendorfer
and Jennie Schmaltz

As Jennie counseled with her principal about next steps, discussing advanced schooling and leadership opportunities, he recommended checking out nonprofit Western Governors University (WGU) where his wife was pursuing a master’s degree. He recognized WGU’s high-quality degrees as being affordable and providing the flexibility busy teachers and administrators need.

Jennie enrolled at WGU and is thriving in her first term in the Endorsement Prep Program in Education Leadership.

“I really appreciate the competency-based education idea at WGU that allows me to go through at a pace that works for me. With my husband gone for military service, I am working hard and pacing myself to go through the coursework quickly. It’s also been great to have a faculty mentor who has been so supportive and so helpful.”

As a former Milken Educator Award winner, WGU Missouri Chancellor Angie Besendorfer was not at all surprised to learn that one of the new Milken award winners was connected to WGU. 

Angie and Jennie have turned their WGU connection into something bigger. Angie is now serving as a formal mentor to Jennie through the Milken mentoring program. 

“It’s exciting to mentor Jennie. Her calling to make a bigger difference in the lives of others is exactly how I felt when I won. I know she will continue to do amazing things. The Milken award is designed to celebrate, elevate, and activate great teachers to highlight what is great about the profession.”

As for spending the money? It’s safely invested and, once her husband returns from duty, will provide the Schmaltz family a much-deserved trip to Scotland.

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