Maryland third grade teacher honored with prestigious Milken Educator Award
Photos contributed by the Milken Family Foundation
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story originally appeared in the February issue of GCU Magazine.
When students arrive in Dion Jones’ third grade classroom, they can take a deep breath. Jones starts each day with mindful minutes, allowing students to pause and share what is on their minds. He recites an affirmation about being persistent learners.
It’s no new-age woo-hoo. His focus on academics, combined with social-emotional learning, led his third grade students at Fairland Elementary School in Silver Springs, Maryland, to excel in math and reading scores.
The Grand Canyon University alumnus recently was awarded one of the top education awards in the nation, the Milken Educator Award.
He doesn’t talk much about the award — “I’m a behind-the-scenes worker. I’m humbled by however I was found” — but simply can’t stop talking about his students and why he starts their day so mindfully.
“I never know what students come in with from the night before. Sometimes they are tired or emotionally drained because there are things in the home that I don’t know about. I need them to release that, because I can’t teach a child that is not available,” he said
“I also want them to know I don’t just care about them academically. I care about their social and emotional well-being.
“As their teacher, it’s my duty to be their biggest cheerleader. If no one else believes they can achieve, it’s my job to believe they can achieve.”
Jones wants them to go on after third grade and believe there is nothing they can’t do, to “adopt the mindset of the power of yet. I may not understand this concept yet, but I will.”
In his sixth year of teaching, and after earning his master’s degree in curriculum and instruction at GCU in 2020, Jones has become a beloved figure in his school, where former students often stop by his classroom and where all his students are referred to as “scholars.”
It’s the second consecutive year GCU alumni have won the prestigious award, given annually to up to 40 educators across the nation who make a profound difference for students, colleagues and communities. Last year, Melissa Martin of Chinle Junior High School in Chinle, Arizona, won the honor, which carries a $25,000 prize.
“The Milken Educator Awards are the Oscars of teaching. Knowing another College of Education alum has earned this honor speaks volumes to the quality of our faculty and programs,” said College of Education Dean Dr. Meredith Critchfield. “More than that, this award speaks to Dion’s commitment to the field of education and the impact he’s making on the lives of countless students and their families. Alums like Dion make us proud to do the work we do.”
His education at GCU has aided in his job as a teacher and faculty leader at Fairland, giving him the tools to become a more effective mentor and leader to other teachers.
Teaching has been his “heart’s desire” since he was a little boy, “and I never wavered in my passion,” he said. “I view it as a calling.”
He tells parents he is a partner with them to better their child. “You will find no other teacher that will love your child like I will love your child. I will look out for them because that is a huge charge. I want them to trust me. So what I find is the same positive messages I instill in school are getting reinforced in the home.”
In his class, students work together to put out a newspaper. He brings his record player and LPs to learn about music and about changes in audio technology. He teaches summer school to get to know his students better.
And much more.
“What keeps me coming back is the love and passion for students’ learning and their growth,” he said. “When you see a student finally getting it, when you see them growing not only academically but maturing ... Coming from second to third grade is a big transition, you begin to see the maturing of their disposition, and it’s so fulfilling.”
He cherishes hearing from former students. One who struggled with reading recently wrote him an email.
“He told me the reason he was the person he was is because of being in my classroom. He said, ‘I never forgot how you made me feel every day,’” Jones said.
He also noted the correct sentence structure of his email and was just as proud of that.
Because he’s a teacher.
When a school assembly was called at Fairland, Jones knew that state and local leaders were there, but he had no idea what for and that they would call him forward to get the award.
“In his young career, he has already demonstrated himself as a leader, a teacher of excellence and a mentor to students and staff alike,” said Milken Educator Awards Senior Vice President Dr. Jane Foley.
Jones was shocked.
“The job of teaching is not for self-fulfillment,” he said. “It is not for me but for who I serve — the students, their families and community.”