On the day she won it, the Milken Award and its $25,000 prize was a mystery to Katie Baker.
“I had never heard of the award before,” she says.
She reacted with a “What?!!” when her name was announced in Chattanooga’s Battle Academy gym in May 2017. “It’s real,” Jane Foley, senior vice president of the Milken Family Foundation, told Baker as she walked to the front of the gym at the school where she worked since graduating from UTC in 2010. She was one of 33 educators from across the country to win the award and the only recipient in Tennessee.
Graduating with bachelor’s degrees in early childhood education and Spanish, Baker was a third-grade teacher at Battle until the end of this past school year. She moved to Nashville over the summer after her husband took a job as a software engineer. She landed a position as a fifth-grade teacher in reading, writing and language arts at Mill Creek Elementary School in Nolensville, located 20 miles south of Nashville.
Coming to UTC from her home in Franklin, Tennessee, was not a difficult decision in 2006, she says. The quality of the university’s School of Education was obvious, especially its focus on getting students out in the real world.
“At UTC, I knew I would have the opportunity to begin getting classroom experience early on in my education,” Baker says. “UTC does an excellent job of creating partnerships with the elementary schools in the area. University students are volunteering and observing in schools right away and do not have to wait until their senior year to student teach.”
Saunya Goss, who was principal at Battle Academy when Baker won the Milken Award, praised her work ethic, noting how she was in charge of the third grade’s day-to-day operations and led the grade’s weekly planning sessions.
“Baker’s communications skills are an asset in forging relationships with parents; she goes beyond conferences and open houses to connect with them,” Goss says. “At the beginning of the year she asks parents to write a letter about their children, sharing how they work best and where they may need help. Baker solicits information about parents’ strengths, skills, and interests to find ways to include them in classroom activities.”
In presenting the Milken Award, Foley praised Baker and the way she approaches teaching.
“She tailors instruction to meet her students’ needs, shares successful strategies with colleagues, builds relationships with parents and plays an important role in moving the whole school forward,” Foley said. “Teachers do not apply for this award. We find great teachers and award them.”
As a magnet school in the Hamilton County system, Battle Academy attracts students from all across the county. Because the students have such a wide range of abilities and capabilities, the school employs a “multiple intelligences” approach with the idea that one-size-fits-all doesn’t offer the best solution to education.
Baker says the system helped her “get to know students as individuals first and find their strengths and weaknesses.”
Some were good at math but bad at English; some the other way around. Some could memorize easily; others had to be coached more.
“Each content area found a way to incorporate their strengths and weaknesses,” Baker says. “You find their strengths and concentrate on weaknesses or find their weaknesses and concentrate on the strengths.
“When I am getting to know the kids, it’s more their strengths and what they’re interested in that usually go together, and you give them experience in things they aren’t used to.”
Along with reading, math, science and social studies, Baker’s third-graders learn another very important skill: How to critique each other’s work. As students share their work in front of the class, Baker listens as their peers offer both compliments and suggestions for improvement. She believes she creates a safe environment where her students know they can trust her and each other.