Just as the school day was winding down Tuesday, Tia Mills was summoned from her classroom at Eden Park Superintendent’s Academy in Baton Rouge to what she thought was a staff meeting.
But walking into the school library, with her students in tow, she quickly learned the truth: she’d just won a prestigious national teaching award, one that comes with a $10,000 check.
"I don’t like surprises," said Mills, who has spent 11 years in the classroom. "But this was a good one. And I don’t get surprised often."
Mills has spent the past five years as president of the local chapter of the National Association of Educators, one of the nation’s two largest teachers union. The award Mills learned she won Tuesday is called the Horace Mann Award for Teaching Excellence, and she is one of five educators nationwide to win it. All winners are working teachers and NEA members.
They will head to Washington D.C. Feb. 9 to collect the award and their $10,000 checks. One of the five educators will be selected for the NEA Member Benefits Award for Teaching Excellence, the union’s top teaching award, which comes with another $25,000.
The award is based on her advocacy work on behalf of the union and her classroom work at Eden Park Superintendent’s Academy, an alternative school for elementary-age children in Baton Rouge.
“It is a culmination of both, not only what I do in the classroom, but outside the classroom,” Mills said.
Mills had already won at the state level in April. She flew to the nation’s capital last week to present a sample lesson before a national panel convened by the NEA Foundation, which assessed nominees submitted by states across the United States.
“I just thought it was a very good experience,” she said. “I never dreamed I would go as far as I would go.”
The panel judged each nominee according to five criteria: professional practice, advocacy for the profession, community engagement, professional development and attention to diversity.
“Honoring these educators is our way of thanking them, and all the public school educators they represent for their excellent work with our nation’s most precious resource, our children,” said Harriet Sanford, president and CEO of the union’s foundation, in a statement.
Horace Mann, a financial services and insurance company that has many educators as clients, sponsors the award. Mann, of course, is a pioneering Massachusetts educator and politician considered a founding father of public education in the United States. A Baton Rouge agent with the company, Jeffrey Russell, handed Mills the “Crystal Owl” plaque Tuesday afternoon that accompanies the honor.
Mills said she had originally planned to be a history professor, earning her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Southern University in Baton Rouge. She shifted to K-12 starting in 2006. She earned an alternate certification in teaching in 2010 from Southern, and in 2014 earned a doctorate in education via the online program offered by Fort Lauderdale, Florida-based Nova Southeastern University. She also is on the Board of Trustees for the Teachers Retirement System of Louisiana.