GCU alums capture top national educator award for third straight year

Grand Canyon University alumna Aga Cook walks through the line of cheering Camp Mohave Elementary School students after winning the Milken Educator Award. (Photo by Milken Family Foundation).

Aga Cook wanted to be a lawyer after earning a master’s degree at the University of Lodz in Poland. But when she moved to the U.S. in 2005 and married a longtime Arizona teacher, she changed her mind. “He inspired me to teach.”

The students of Camp Mohave Elementary School in Fort Mohave, Arizona, have benefited from her career swap.

Cook, who earned a Master of Education in Educational Administration in 2019 at Grand Canyon University, was one of two GCU graduates to win the national Milken Educator Award in December. Ashley Meyer, a first and second grade teacher at Horizon Honors Elementary School in Phoenix, also won the honor, the third year in a row GCU alumni have captured the Milken, known as “the Oscars of teaching.”

“These awards are given to the most exceptional educators from across the United States who demonstrate excellence in teaching and leading. We're beyond proud of our alums who excel in their classrooms and schools and selflessly choose to wake up every day and make a difference in children's lives,” said GCU College of Education Dean Dr. Meredith Critchfield.

Both teachers were awarded the Milken Educator Foundation’s $25,000 prize at surprise assemblies at their schools. Cook, a fifth-grade teacher, curriculum coordinator and data coach at Camp Mohave, shed tears when the foundation’s Dr. Joshua Barnett gave her the honor, this year awarded to 75 teachers nationwide.

Aga Cook is tearful after winning the educator award. (Photo by Milken Family Foundation)

“Working in a rural area taught me that I need to advocate for my students to ensure they have access to all needed resources and high-quality instruction,” Cook told GCU News. “Teaching and working with children is by far the most rewarding profession. You make an impact every day ... building their intrinsic motivation to set and achieve their life goals and seeing their growth every year.”

Cook said her GCU education helped land leadership positions at the school, becoming a data coach and giving her the confidence to lead the district’s curriculum initiatives.

“Now I see how impactful earning my degree at GCU was in my career,” she said.

Cook is credited with forging strong community partnerships and building creative lessons, whether turning her classroom into a mock trial, livestreaming lessons for absent students, setting up a solar project with an electric company or inviting a bank to speak to students about financial literacy. Outside school, she teaches adult English as a second language classes.

When Meyer was awarded the prize, students at Horizon Honors gave her a loud ovation, cheering and stomping on the gym floor.

“I’m speechless, I’m shocked, I’m so grateful,” Meyer told the assembly that included Tom Horne, Arizona superintendent of public instruction. “I thought today was just going to be a regular day, and here I am now. This is just a great experience.”

She also has wanted to be a teacher since she was a child - "it runs in the family all the way to my great grandmother," Meyer said.

Ashley Meyer reacts to winning the Milken Educator Award at Horizon Honors Elementary School. (Photo by Milken Family Foundation).

Meyer is a mentor teacher who utilizes small groups to provide differentiated instruction, using interactive lessons to learn the material and its relevance to everyday life. She often implements the ideas for hands-on study during “Project Group,” a time dedicated for students to demonstrate their grasp of the study. She also sponsors an after-school group for students.

“Ashley Meyer understands both the individuality of each student as well as the importance of their ability to function as part of the group,” Horne said.

Meyer, who earned a Master of Art in Reading with an Emphasis in Elementary Education at GCU in 2019, told GCU News that her collaboration with a cohort at GCU, education research and online courses on brain-based learning helped her excel in her career.

“This degree helped me become a better reading teacher, which led me to become a mentor teacher at my school and part of my leadership team,” she said.

Meyer and Cook were the only two Arizona educators this year given the award, created by Lowell Milken in 1987 to honor elementary and secondary school educators who are furthering excellence in education. This year, the foundation nearly doubled the number of prize winners as it accelerates to its 3,000 recipient in 2024.

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

Related content:

GCU News: Second consecutive GCU grad wins 'Oscars of teaching'

GCU News: Alumna wins prestigious national educator award

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