COE alums add to long list of educator awards

Principal Nathan Tedjeske, a GCU alumnus, has a stunned reaction after winning the Milken Educator Award recently at Cody (Wyoming) High School.

Nathan Tedjeske was surrounded by teachers and cheering students earlier this month at Cody (Wyoming) High School as he accepted the Milken Educator Award, a prestigious national honor known as the “Oscars of Teaching.”

“I come to work every day as the luckiest man in the world,” the principal told the crowd. “It’s a testament to you guys. We talk about how great our students are. I can’t say it enough, you guys are incredible.”

He is the third Grand Canyon University alumnus to win the award this year, following Aga Cook and Ashley Meyer’s December Milken honor given to outstanding educators across the country, and the fifth in three years.

“I appreciate the foundational knowledge to get my feet on the ground and learn what administration was going to look like,” Tedjeske said during an interview about his 2018 master’s in educational administration at GCU.

He is not alone. So many alumni were tagging GCU’s College of Education in social media posts after winning educator of the year awards on local, state and national levels that the college began to compile a list after confirming all those honors – a list that recently has exceeded 100 in recent years and continues to grow.

“It is so uplifting and heartwarming. Not only are our teachers staying in the field, they are excelling,” said Dr. Alicia Kozimor, COE faculty chair.

One reason for COE alumni’s success is clear to Kozimor.

“It speaks to the quality of our programs and amazing faculty who don’t prepare them for the perfect classroom, they prepare them for the real classroom and real students when they head into the field. They teach them theory but also the field experience to get that application. They hit the ground ready to go.”

Melissa Martin captured the Milken Educator Award in 2022 for her work at Chinle Junior High School in Chinle, Arizona.

Tedjeske showcases the point. He goes beyond the classroom to create learning experiences that prepare students for college and a career, launching career and technical education classes and creating real-world opportunities while he was a middle school principal last year in Cody and now in his new role in the high school.

One program allows juniors and some seniors to take 90 minutes of their school day to do internships at local companies. He says it beats the one-day job shadow because it allows them to see not only the highlights of the job but the daily grind, too.

“The goal is we want to give kids exposure when they are making a decision as big as what they are going to do with their lives,” he said.

That also will include experiential learning pods next year, building a few classes that fit the local economy that are heavy in tourism by working with wildlife officials, scientists and business officials to get them ready for its outdoor-oriented industry.

“Hopefully that is the norm for us and that same model can be applied for several different industries, teaching through that type of exposure rather than the traditional classroom.”

There is another reason GCU alumni have excelled in the field, Kozimor said.

“We have a special student body who are missional at their heart. They feel a calling to be in education and have their faith behind them as well,” she said.

When Chinle (Arizona) Junior High School Principal Melissa Martin won the Milken award in 2022 for her work at the school where she was educated as a girl at the center of the Navajo Nation, Milken officials cited her “care and compassion” for students.

“It makes my heart, it breaks my heart,” she told GCU News about being an educator, “but every day there is something to learn. There is some child that needs you. And I want to see students succeed and see them grow.”

Tommy Tryon is flanked by Kanas Department of Education Commissioner Dr. Randy Watson (right) and Deputy Commissioner Dr. Ben Proctor at the award ceremony.

Educator awards by alumni at all levels continue to pour in from across the country. Many are displayed on COE’s Lopes Legacy Wall outside its administration offices on campus.

Tommy Tryon, who got a master’s in secondary education at GCU in 2020, won the 2021 Kansas Horizon Award, given to accomplished teachers in four Kansas regions each year.

After an overseas deployment in the National Guard ended in 2018, he continued his education at GCU.

“It was easy to work with GCU in setting up my GI Bill because I didn’t know how to do that,” he said. “Then the classes were what I needed to be the educator I am today.”

In his first job at Washington County High School in Washington, Kansas, he said he started quickly, coaching three sports and becoming a class sponsor.

“I had a big leadership role right from the get-go. It’s a small school and they needed me to step up,” he said. “But the biggest reason I was successful is the relationship I had with the kids. It’s the most important thing we can do.”

What he took most from GCU is exactly what Kozimor emphasized.

“The best thing they did for me and probably all the teacher candidates is that it was very hands on, very immersive,” he said. “You could see how education works in a classroom, rather than just reading textbooks and doing assignments.”

The care and compassion emerged, too, and led him to a new job as head track coach and physical education teacher at Valley Heights Junior/Senior High School in Blue Rapids, Kansas, in the coming year.

“You have to have empathy. If kids see you care about them as people, they will be better students for you as well,” he said.

Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at [email protected]

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