Just before Christmas, Andover Central Middle School teacher Carly Bowden wanted to give her seventh-grade students a taste of math in the real world.
So instead of giving them the traditional paper-and-pencil assessment to test their knowledge of spending, she took them to a local grocery store and handed over an envelope of cash.
The assignment: Shop for donations for a local charity of their choice. But don’t break the budget.
And don’t forget to estimate sales tax.
“They spend the time applying their math skills shopping ... and then we load the bus and then we deliver all the goods,” Bowden said.
“I’m just constantly trying to create an experience for them.”
Bowden’s insistence on teaching math in unconventional yet practical ways has helped her earn one of the most prestigious honors bestowed upon educators early in their careers: The Milken Educator Award, which recognizes excellence in teaching.
Andover Central Middle School students and staff as well as past Milken award winners surprised Bowden with the honor — known in the education world as the “Oscars of Teaching” — at an assembly Thursday morning at the school, 903 E. Central in Andover.
The announcement, which drew cheers and a burst of applause from students, left Bowden speechless and in tears.
“It felt like a dream,” she told reporters after the assembly, adding that she was “totally overwhelmed and totally caught ... by surprise” by the news.
“I even looked at the student next to me, hoping that they were looking at me.”
Her win had been kept a secret since before Christmas, when Andover Central Middle School principal Tim Hayden learned Bowden was chosen.
“She goes above and beyond for kids, for teachers. She’s just an all-around good person and leader, and she’s highly deserving,” he said.
“Her impact goes beyond the walls of Andover Central Middle School.”
Bowden is one of just 40 educators nationwide to be honored with the Milken Educator Award for the 2019-2020 school year — and the only one in Kansas. As part of the award, she’ll meet the others during a three-day forum in Indianapolis in March, have the chance to network with past recipients and will receive a $25,000 cash prize.
Milken Educators are selected early or around the middle of their careers “for what they have achieved and for the promise of what they will accomplish,” according to a news release from the Milken Family Foundation, which started the award program in 1987.
“We get recommendations from the whole country. And then we look at all of them to determine who we believe represent the top 1% of the profession,” Milken Educators Awards Senior Vice President Jane Foley said.
Elementary and secondary educators are eligible in alternating years and are sought out and selected by the foundation rather than through a nominating or application process.
“Bowden is that rare teacher who really understands how to balance all the factors when teaching middle school learners, and her commitment and dedication show the kind of inspirational leadership we seek in our Milken Educators,” Foley said.
Bowden, 28, graduated from Emporia State University in 2015 with a bachelor’s degree in math education. She’s been teaching in Andover for five years.
She is the 67th Kansan to be named a Milken Educator, according to a Kansas Department of Education news release.
“I am a rookie teacher. So the veteran teachers are what have brought me to where I’m at right now,” Bowden said.
“I’ve had great mentors along the way,” she said, including the Topeka high school math teacher whom she credited with her decision to pursue a career in education.
That teacher, Brad Nicks of Shawnee Heights High School in Topeka, who won the Milken Educator Award in 2009, attended Thursday’s assembly to help honor Bowden.
“She ... truly exemplifies what it is to be a Milken Educator. And I know she’s going to do great things in the future,” he said.
The honor comes with a $25,000 prize that Bowden can spend however she wants.
What will she buy first?
“I’m going to order a pizza,” she said, laughing during an interview following Thursday’s all-school assembly.
And after that?
“Maybe look at furthering my education, maybe going to get my master’s (degree),” she said.
Kansas has been participating in the Milken Educator program since 1992. The program has awarded more than $1.6 million to Kansas teachers so far, the Kansas Department of Education news release said.