Hersey teacher floored by national award, $25,000 prize
Students and staff at John Hersey High School weren't sure what was going on Wednesday morning when the entire school was asked to gather for an assembly.
Rumors swirled that Oprah Winfrey was coming, or the cast of the "Twilight" movies was visiting.
But the reality turned out to be more exciting, at least for one of school's teachers, who was treated like a celebrity and surprised with a prestigious national award.
Brad Abel received the 2011 National Educator Award from the Milken Family Foundation, a national prize dubbed the "Oscars of Teaching" that comes with $25,000 he can use in any way he wants. He is the only Illinois teacher to earn the award this year.
As Abel sat and watched the assembly Wednesday morning, he tried to guess which of his colleagues would be recognized. The 30-year-old social studies teacher said he was completely shocked when he heard his name called.
Students gave Abel, of Arlington Heights, a standing ovation as he thanked his peers and said that, for once, he was speechless.
"This is an amazing thing and I'm in complete shock," he said. "I just want to say thank you."
The Milken Educator Awards were created to motivate exceptional teachers. Including this year's selections, more $63 million has been awarded to more than 2,500 educators, 109 of them from Illinois.
Milken Family Foundation Co-Founder Michael Milken, Congressman Robert Dold, Illinois State Board of Education member James W. Baumann and Northwest Suburban High School District 214 Superintendent David R. Schuler were on hand to give Abel the award.
"If you want to see the future of any country, all you have to do is visit the schools," Milken told the students.
Abel said he was inspired to become a teacher by his parents, both of whom are teachers. He grew up in Buffalo Grove and graduated from the University of Illinois before joining Hersey's faculty, first as a student-teacher, nine years ago.
Aside from teaching human geography, Abel is the head girl's soccer coach.
"His coaching style mirrors his teaching style, always positive and encouraging," said Hersey principal Tina Cantrell. "He believes in our students and they know it."
Candidates for the Milken Educator Awards are early to mid-career educators selected based on educational talent and accomplishments in and out of the classroom.
"I have such a passion for it and hopefully, if I show the kids that I have that passion, they will as well," Abel said. "Hopefully in some small way we're making a difference."
With a day full of teaching and parent-teacher conferences at night, Abel said he might not have much time to celebrate Wednesday. He hasn't thought much about what to do with the money, and didn't even mention the cash prize when calling to tell his girlfriend and parents.
"It's not one of the reasons why I teach," he said. "But obviously it's a tremendous honor."
Milken is a former financier who was sentenced to prison in 1990 on insider trading and fraud allegations. Since his release, he's spearheaded a number of philanthropic efforts, ranging from the teacher awards to prostate cancer awareness to a think tank that supports research of cures to serious diseases.