Local teacher wins prestigious Milken Award

NASHUA – Jillian Brickley tried to catch her breath as she walked up to the podium. Her first thought? Tie this to the curriculum.

“You know how we talked about your active heart rate?” Brickley said, speaking to her fifth-grade students in the back of the gymnasium. “Right now, my heart is up there.”

Brickley, a teacher at Charlotte Avenue Elementary School, had just been announced as the winner of the prestigious Milken Educator Award, an honor that comes with a $25,000 check to do with as she pleases.

Started in 1987, the award is funded through the Milken Family Foundation to recognize excellence in teaching. More than 2,500 educators have been awarded with more than $62 million in that time.

This year, Brickley, 31, is one of 55 teachers across the country – but the only one in the Granite State – who will receive the award.

Only a few people at the school knew what was really going on Thursday. Students and teachers at the school thought they were going to an assembly to talk about student behavior.

As the school community was gathered in the gymnasium, local and state education officials were huddled in a conference room waiting for their cue to enter. Jackie Okonak, a fifth-grade teacher at the school, was with them, holding balloons and flowers. Also there were Paul Okonak, Jackie’s husband, and their son, Jon.

The Okonaks have come to be close friends with Brickley. Jackie Okonak said when she came to the school eight years ago, Brickley helped her adjust through those first few months. Okonak had known Brickley was getting the award for a few days, but said she had no problem keeping it a secret from her colleagues and family.

“I just started crying,” Okonak said, when asked about her reaction to the news. “It’s so deserving.”

Midway through the assembly, Nashua Superintendent Mark Conrad, Mayor Donnalee Lozeau and several members of the Board of Education entered the gymnasium and a buzz began to grow among the crowd. New Hampshire Commissioner of Education Virginia Barry took to the podium as she started to hint that something special was up.

“I’m here to tell you a secret. How many people like secrets?” Barry said, as hundreds of children’s hands went flying up.

Barry went on to describe the award and what it means for the teacher who is honored. Out of millions of teachers across the country, there was a teacher at the school who was one of only a few dozen chosen to receive the award, she told the students. Barry then went into the specifics, saying it was a fifth-grade teacher who had been at the school for 10 years.

In the back of the gymnasium, Brickley’s knees buckled and she started to cry, as her colleague, Moira Conley, gave her a celebratory hug. The gym burst into applause when Brickley’s name was announced. Interim Principal Tracey Cassady escorted Brickley to the podium.

Wiping away tears, Brickley thanked her fellow educators for their support and gave credit to the students for the fun and laughter they bring to school every day.

“Thank you for always making us smile,” she said to the students.

Afterward, teachers and students came up one at a time to hug and congratulate her.

“We’re so proud of you,” said music teacher Melanie Paul, who happened to be Brickley’s music teacher in grammar school while growing in Goffstown.

Although she is in her 10th year as a teacher, Brickley said many of the core principles that led her to teaching still apply, such as making sure the students are always having fun and integrating projects and hands-on learning.

“So it’s not just drill and skill, fill in this bubble,” she said.

An avid sports fan, Brickley ties athletics into much of what she does in the classroom. One example is the Brickley Bowl she holds every January. She ties various lessons into the Super Bowl in the week leading up to the game. Students study math, using team yardage. There are lessons in area and volume, as well as studying the geography of where each team is from. They produce newscasts, learn about the human body.

She even ties football rules into the week.

“If they talk without raising their hands, that’s blocking,” she said.

Brickley also incorporates technology as much as possible into the curriculum. Next week, students are taking a field trip to Plymouth Plantation and students will use their digital cameras to produce a film of their visit.

A group of her students, holding a giant mock $25,000 check, talked how much fun their teacher makes learning. Fifth-grader Allie Alton said she loves her teacher’s funny phrases, like “That melts my butter” and “I’m picking up what you’re putting down.” After the ceremony, Brickley walked into her room to find the students had spent the time after getting back decorating and writing her letters of congratulations.

One student held a sign: “Best teacher in the US.”

“She supports us when we need it,” said student Shannon Wallace.

Brickley dedicates her own time to coaching the school’s cross country team, which she said has grown from just a few students the first year to 54 this year. She also took on heading up the Police Athletic League’s cross country team this year. In fact, she was heading to practice with the PAL team immediately after school Thursday.

During physical education class on Mondays, teacher Al Rivard said Brickley’s never hesitates to get in and compete with the students.

Brickley joins a list of two other local winners over the past several years. Last year, Patrick Kaplo, a science teacher at Campbell High School in Litchfield, was given the honor. And in 2007, Marina Capen, a math teacher at Souhegan High School in Amherst, was named one of the educators honored across the country.

Cassady said Brickley’s nomination for the Milken award came out of her being a finalist for the state teacher of the year in 2008. A parent, Michelle Canto, had nominated her for the teacher of the year. Brickley did not win, but her name was considered for the Milken award by a panel appointed by each state’s Department of Education. Teachers are nominated with their knowledge.

Brickley said she plans on using some of the money to pay off her students loans. She will receive her award in April, as part of an all-expenses-paid trip to Los Angeles for the Milken National Education Conference.

Michael Brindley can be reached at 594-6426 or mbrindley@nashuatelegraph.com.