Katie Negen, a master teacher at Slaton Junior High School and a 2007 College of Education graduate, has been awarded a $25,000 Milken Educator Award.
The dignitaries were due any minute, and Katie Negen, a master teacher at Slaton Junior High School, was worried about the punch. Her principal, Jim Andrus, had tasked her with setting up the reception for the event honoring Slaton Independent School District Superintendent Julee Becker, and when people started arriving that day, the punch still was not ready.
"I had one job,” said Negen, a 2007 Texas Tech University College of Education graduate. "That was making the reception look good.”
As she set up tables and dealt with the catering, there was one thing she did not know: the reception and ceremony were actually for her. The attendees, which included faculty and staff from the Texas Tech College of Education, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath and National Institute for Excellence in Teaching (NIET) chief executive officer Gary Stark, were all there to see her receive a Milken Educator Award from the Milken Family Foundation.
"I was 100 percent surprised,” Negen said. "It was a shock, for sure.”
Becoming a Milken Award winner
The Milken Family Foundation presents the Milken Educator Award to early- to mid-career top education professionals not just for what they already have achieved as educators, but for the impact they will continue making in the field. Recipients are not nominated but instead chosen by the foundation though a highly confidential process. The award comes with a no-strings-attached award of $25,000.
Negen has spent the years since graduating from Texas Tech teaching at Slaton Junior High School. She began as a student teacher, and then was hired as a seventh-grade writing teacher. After seven years in that position, she was promoted to the master teacher position and now leads her fellow teachers. She coaches these teachers on ways to improve classroom processes with weekly meetings, planning exercises, evaluations, co-teaching exercises and data analysis.
A native of Haskell, she said she asked specifically for a spot at Slaton Junior High School when completing her degree.
"It's a small school, a little bit bigger than what I attended,” Negen said. "I wanted to teach students who were from backgrounds I was familiar with growing up, with the same demographics and culture. There's definitely a hometown feeling here.”
Negen has always wanted to be a teacher and recalls vivid memories of making her younger sister play "school” as children. Her mother, who spent several years as a registered nurse before returning to school to get her teaching certification, was one of her main influences.
"She was really what sparked it in me,” Negen said. "I knew I wanted to be a teacher, but I didn't really know how badly I wanted to be a teacher until she would come home with all of her papers, and I would help her organize. She would grade assignments and make cool foldables, and I would help. I was fascinated by it. Then, she would tell me all these stories about her students and how she was affecting them. I was like, ‘I'm going to do that one day.'”
Her paternal grandparents were another major influence in her journey to become an educator. They both graduated from Texas Tech with education degrees. Her grandmother went on to become a first grade teacher, while her grandfather first taught in Wellington and Portales, New Mexico, before spending 38 years as a principal in Kress. His dedication to his students was evident well after he retired, Negen said.
"My granddad's former students would reach out to him, people my dad's age,” Negen said. "Even after they moved to Abilene, those students would drive all the way to see him and talk about how he impacted their lives. I just thought that was so wonderful, to see that and hear the stories about the things he did for those students. I just wanted to be like mom and him and impact lives.”
Andrus, who has served as Negen's principal for the past six years, said she is succeeding
in that endeavor.
"It's all about relationships, with children as well as with the teachers,” Andrus said. "She knows them well and knows their stories, and that translates into the education process. With both teachers and students, she is very collaborative and engaging. She invites them to participate in the learning process. They're actively learning, and there is always a way to reflect and respond afterwards.”
Mellinee Lesley, a professor in the College of Education's Language, Diversity & Literacy Studies program and the associate dean of Graduate Education and Research, has worked closely with Negen through a partnership between the college and NIET to develop curriculum for a six-hour course over literacy methods for English language arts and social studies teachers at Slaton Junior High School.
"Katie is extremely thorough and deliberate as a master teacher in professional learning community meetings. She methodically and meticulously plans each lesson,” Lesley said. "She exemplifies the ‘third wave' teacher leadership movement in the United States, where teachers like Katie, who are in instructional leadership roles in K-12 settings, are becoming more empowered administratively.
"Teacher leaders are becoming more prominent in curriculum decision-making and accountability and evaluation of other teachers' educational practices. Administrative teams in K-12 settings are becoming more diversified in terms of credentials and roles. Because Katie is on the cusp of this movement so early in her career, she is poised to shape this movement.”
Negen said she loves the role she fills at Slaton Junior High, but she wasn't so sure when she first moved into the position. Her favorite part of being an educator has always been working directly with students and building relationships with them, and she was afraid moving out of the classroom and into her current role wouldn't allow her to make the kind of impact she wanted.
"My principal had a lot of confidence in me, but it took me a long time to realize that I was able to effect change in so many people,” Negen said. "I get to take my ideas and the practices I have researched and learned, and I get to deliver it to 20 teachers on my campus. They go out and do their work with their students, and they are amazing in the classroom. I can't take full credit for what they do, but with the impact I am able to have on multiple teachers at one time, I am able to reach more students that way.”
Teaching is not an easy profession, Negen added, and being able to coach teachers who are having a hard time recognizing the impact they are making is extremely rewarding.
"I'm able to help them discover and focus on the one or two things they may have done well on a given day that impacted a student's life,” Negen said. "Sometimes, teachers need to be shown and reminded of the small yet powerful deeds they do on a daily basis that impact students.”
Andrus said Negen exemplifies the attributes the Milken Foundation looks for when searching for educators near the midpoint of their careers.
"She now has the maturity in her field to understand it deeply, and she has been able to develop some well-grounded philosophy and attitudes about education,” Andrus said. "She understands what makes it work and what doesn't, and she has a growth mindset, which enables her to approach the classroom in a different manner than those with a closed mindset. She also teaches growth mindset to our teachers, and all of that culminates in a person who can go forward and really make a difference in education.”
Receiving the award
Andrus was first contacted by the foundation last spring, and it was up to him to keep the secret until right before the ceremony. He answered questions during that first call and one other time about Negen and her work, and then was told he would be contacted at a later date if she were selected.
"Two weeks prior to the ceremony, they called and said she was going to be a recipient,” Andrus said. "From that point, it was incredibly fast with a tremendous amount of information. I was told immediately to come up with a ruse.”
The story Andrus gave his leadership team, which included Negen, was that Becker would be honored during a ceremony at the school as superintendent of the year for Region 17. Morath would be in attendance as the presenter.
"Katie is so involved in the building that the only way to make it authentic was to give her a job,” Andrus said. "So, she was in charge of the entire reception and was extremely busy. It was the only way to keep her from asking questions. I've kept very few secrets in my life as well as that one, but she really didn't know at all.”
So focused was Negen on the reception that when Becker attempted to introduce her to Morath and Stark, Negen shook their hands and then quickly excused herself.
"She said, ‘I'm so sorry, I'm the punch lady, I have to go,'” Andrus recalled, laughing.
Once the ceremony began, it became apparent that it was actually to present the Milken award to one of the teachers. Negen still had no idea she would be the recipient and said she fully expected to hear the name of one of her fellow teachers announced.
When the auditorium full of students, faculty and staff heard Negen's name, Andrus said they erupted in a standing ovation.
"It was fantastic,” he said. "She was stunned, but you wouldn't have known it. She has a great deal of stability in her character, so there were about two seconds when she was just kind of shaking her head and then she stood up and carried it off like she had been rehearsing for years.”
Though she played it off well, Negen said she was just hoping she wouldn't say something that would embarrass her or the school.
"I was shaking,” she said. "I was 29 weeks pregnant and suddenly I was being mic'd up and I was like, "What is happening?'”
"She handled it beautifully,” Andrus said. "Inside, I think she was just trying to figure it out, but she appeared to be very calm.”
After addressing the crowd and speaking with reporters, Negen had one more thing to tackle – calling her husband, Chris, and mother, Amy.
"We were not allowed to tell her family,” Andrus said. "They put her on the phone with her mom and it was quite entertaining for us to watch and emotional for her.”
While her husband did not really grasp the enormity of the situation until after he saw news of the award pick up steam on social media, Negen said her mother, a fellow educator, started crying as soon as she heard the news.
"She was in the middle of class,” Negen recalled. "I said, ‘Remember when I told you the commissioner was coming? They came to present me an award.'”
Life as a Milken Award winner
Receiving a Milken Award is rare. Andrus said of the thousands of educators considered, there usually is only one recipient per state. It is especially rare in rural districts like Slaton – Negen is the first from the district to win the award. Lesley said the award is an important indicator to students of the quality of their education at Slaton Junior High.
"This is an enormous honor,” Lesley said. "It brings national visibility to rural West Texas and proves that the potential for educational excellence is everywhere you have teachers who are committed to upholding standards for quality and rigor in classroom instruction.
It is a source of pride for their school, and Katie is a source of pride for the Texas Tech College of Education, too. The award reflects positively on the college in that Katie exemplifies the qualities of a life-long learner we are trying to instill in all our graduates.”
Andrus said he's proud Negen chose, and continues to choose, to work in Slaton. Having the kind of excellence Negen possesses within their ranks is a phenomenal compliment to everyone she works with and showcases the outstanding work educators are completing in small schools in rural Texas.
"They found her by looking at data and school cultures, and it helps everyone to know that you and what you do matters,” Andrus said. "Excellence in the classroom and the school translates into a much broader audience than just Slaton, Texas. I think Katie recognizes that it does not happen in a vacuum, and it validates the system we have in place to build capacity in our teachers and grow within. It is a huge compliment to what we do and to our school, faculty, district and everyone who supports the things we do in our district.
"It's had an impact on us all, and I hope this enlightens our legislators and government officials in the Department of Education that what's going on in public schools is excellent. I hope there is a trust restored in public schools and support for those who want to become educators, because the work we do is extremely important and it changes lives daily.”
As for Negen, she said she is looking forward to connecting with other Milken Award winners and figuring out how to use this new platform to continue effecting change within the field of education. But receiving the award hasn't changed the work she continues to do.
"It's going to be interesting to see where this might take me, what doors it might open and who I'll get to talk to,” Negen said. "I'm humbled and very honored. I know it means a lot and carries a big weight, but I have a job to do here. Right now, I'm focused on where I can effect change now and that's with my teachers, my students and my district. If the chance arises, I'll definitely take the opportunity to use my platform.”