Washburn Rural teacher wins $25,000 Milken Educator Award

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Published: Apr. 26, 2022 at 10:53 AM CDT
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TOPEKA, Kan. (WIBW) - A Washburn Rural High School biology teacher won a prestigious national award on Tuesday morning for his efforts in the classroom.

He also received a check for $25,000 as part of the prize from the Santa Monica, Calif.-based Milken Family Foundation. The cash award is unrestricted and can be used however the recipient chooses to use it.

Ryan Pfeifer, who teaches biology at Washburn Rural, was presented the Milken Educator Award during an all-school assembly in the school gymnasium at 5900 S.W. 61st.

He received a standing ovation from the students, faculty and staff members in attendance when his name was called, as he made his way to the front of the gymnasium from his seat midway up on the east bleachers.

The award was presented during an awards ceremony, and Pfeifer had no idea ahead of time that he had been selected for the award.

Officials with the Milken Family Foundation said the award is for the “unsung heroes” who work as teachers in the classroom.

Teachers don’t apply for the award, officials with the Milken Family Foundation said. Rather, officials said, the foundation uses a “confidential selection process” to find out about top teachers across the nation, then researches them before selecting more than 60 per year for the honor.

Stephanie Bishop, Milken Educator Awards vice president, said the organization was delighted to honor Pfeifer with the award on Tuesday, calling it “an exciting day” for Washburn Rural High School.

She said Pfeifer “really represents one of the best K-12 educators” in the United States.

“He is incredibly gifted in the area of teaching science,” Bishop said after Tuesday’s award ceremony at Washburn Rural. “But what’s also really special about Mr. Pfeifer is his way to connect with students. That’s something that we really found in researching Mr. Pfeifer.”

Pfeifer said he was surprised at being named a winner of the Milken Family Foundation Award. He said he was grateful to be on staff with other excellent teachers at Washburn Rural.

He also said he enjoys working with students in the biology classes he teaches. As for how he relates to the students, Pfeifer said he tries to be himself.

“I just act natural,” he said. “I’m just me. They appreciate the vulnerability. They know that I’m real and I try to get to know them really well.

“I try to attend their games. I try to show interest in them, and I think that when you have a really kind of mutualistic relationship with the students, and they know that they’re respected, then they’re going to respect you. It just has been a really good, positive working relationship.”

Pfeifer is a graduate of Shawnee Heights High School and Kansas State University, where he majored in biology. He also received his master’s degree in education from Baker University.

Pfeifer is in his 10th year as a teacher. He has spent the past nine years at Washburn Rural after starting his teaching career at Shawnee Mission North High School.

Milken officials said Pfeifer was selected for the award in part for his “alternative approach to science education,” in which he “flips” his classroom so students use online lectures to explore concepts at home.

Meanwhile, classroom time at school is used to promote a deeper understanding of the science concepts and engage students in more hands-on laboratory work.

In addition to receiving a $25,000 award, Pfeifer will join other honorees from across the nation in an all-expanses paid trip to Los Angeles for the Milken Educator Awards Forum.

Sometimes called the “Oscars of Teaching,” the Milken Educator Award is designed to “celebrate, elevate and activate” the American teaching profession, while inspiring young, capable people to consider joining it.

The Milken Educator Award is presented to around 60 teachers across the nation each year by the Santa Monica, Calif.-based Milken Family Foundation.

Several previous Milken Family Foundation recipients were on hand for the event, during which a number of Washburn Rural High School sports and academic teams were honored for their achievements so far this academic year.

The Milken Educator Awards began in 1987. The awards, sponsored by the Milken Family Foundation, have provided $140 million in funding, including $70 million in individual $25,000 awards, since their inception.

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