LEBANON — One of the goals of the Milken Educator Awards, often described as "the Oscars of teaching," is to inspire excellent teachers to stick with the job.
But Lisa Richard of Pioneer School insisted Tuesday she needs no national honor to stay in her classroom — even one that comes with $25,000 in cash.
"I love being here," she said. "Every day, these guys are the reason I get out of bed."
However, the cash is a pretty nice fringe benefit, she told her third-graders after Tuesday's surprise assembly. "I think there's going to be a really good field trip happening in third grade," she said.
Richard is the first Linn County teacher and the only one in Oregon this year to receive a Milken Educator Award. The award program is now in its 30th year.
Up to 35 Milken Educators will be recognized across the country for the 2016-17 school year. Recipients are sought out by the Milken Family Foundation and cannot apply or nominate someone for the honor.
Jane Foley, senior vice president of the Milken Educator Awards Milken Family Foundation, presented the award and check to Richard on Tuesday as students stood and cheered.
School officials had been told only they were to schedule a special assembly and that Oregon Department of Education officials and others would be on hand to discuss the school's college preparation program, AVID. Pupils wore AVID T-shirts in class colors as part of the assembly.
AVID, which stands for Advancement Via Individual Determination, is an important factor in academic success, Foley told the audience. But just as important are the teachers who lead the classes.
"Educators have the most important job in the country," she said. "At the Milken Foundation, we don't think teachers get enough recognition. We don't say 'Thank you' enough."
The annual awards — which come with an all-expense-paid trip to New Orleans to a Milken gathering as well as the cash prize — are meant to give the message that teaching is valued and appreciated, Foley said, and to bring public attention to the good work happening there.
"There are many great educators and teachers in this country. You can believe me when I say that. I've been everywhere," Foley told the children. "But one of the best teachers in the entire country is here, in your school."
Richard, sitting with her third-graders, put her hands to her face in shock as her name was announced, then made her way slowly to the microphone.
"First of all, I'm blown away," she said. "I am only as good as I am because of the people I'm around, and you are the best staff ever."
Richard, 48, began pursuing a teaching career only after several years as a stay-at-home mom and day care operator.
She has been at Pioneer for all her 12 years in education to date, teaching both second and third grade, and said she plans to stay.
"It's so simple. I want to teach," she said. "It's my passion, and to be honored for it is mind-blowing."
In Richard's classroom, students have studied important figures in American history by dressing in costume, memorizing biographies and presenting their own living "wax museum." Classroom families gather for pizza parties in the summer.
For the Lebanon Community School District, Richard helps with new teacher induction and mentoring. She led a schoolwide digital portfolio project to help teachers document teaching practices and their effects on students, and also heads the district's grade-level team.
When Richard learned last year many of her students had never gone camping, she and her fellow second-grade teacher, Colleen Floro, organized parents and put on an end-of-year "camping" trip for an afternoon on the school lawn, complete with tents and s'mores.
"She's just the best," third-grader Josiah Borntrager said.
Added JoJo Reeves: "She was so happy she was crying. All of us were crying, too. We were all so happy that our teacher won."
Richard said she still can't quite believe it. "All I want to do is inspire, and somebody noticed."
Milken awards are meant to be inspiring for future generations, too, Foley said. She encouraged the children in the audience to tell their parents about the assembly and to find other teachers to thank.
"We know some of them will go home tonight and say, 'I'm going to be a teacher just like Miss Richard,'" Foley said.