Local educators win teaching ‘Oscars’ – and $25,000 each

Little did teachers Tiffany Lemos and Dane Beorchia know they would each leave their schools on March 18 with $25,000 to spend on whatever they wanted.

Or that Oprah Winfrey I would congratulate them and 60 other national recipients of this year’s Milken Educator Awards, also known as the “Oscars” for teachers. Winners can spend their cash prize as they see fit.

“I didn’t expect it at all,” an emotional Lemos said, standing next to a large check bearing her name during a surprise assembly at her Chubbuck Elementary School.

“It’s a lot to take in,” Beorchia said in a similar setting just five miles away in the gymnasium at Highland High School.

Teachers in the Pocatello-Chubbuck School District won the only two awards presented in Idaho this school year – the Milken Family Foundation recognize educators who demonstrate innovation and inspiring leadership in the classroom. Panels appointed by state education departments helped the foundation select winners and hold surprise town halls in their honor.

Lemos’ efforts to merge learning with the physical and mental health of students helped her win the award. For Beorchia, it’s about helping high school students have a vision for their future, especially during two difficult pandemic years.

Both have emphasized the need to push children academically, although they take very different approaches. We stopped by their classrooms last week to see how they were doing.

Tiffany Lemos: A family philosophy

Lemos tries to make her class feel like family, which for her translates into pictures on the walls, flexible seating arrangements and a range of activities.

One of the priorities is to help children be kind to each other and to themselves through daily group activities. For “Thankful Thursday,” the children sat at the back of the room as Lemos led them through a reflective exercise for positive thinking.

Children sitting cross-legged on the floor greeted each other with nudges and compliments.

“I like your shirt,” one said.

“You’re always nice to people,” said another.

“In your ears,” Lemos said then, asking the children to repeat after her, “We are smart. We are smart. We persevere.

Students took turns leading the group through versions of their own positive reinforcements. “We are mathematicians,” said one. Another: “We are nice.”

The children then returned to their desks for a different activity, their third in 20 minutes. Moving around keeps their blood flowing and provides them with occasional “brain breaks”. These and other meditative videos that Lemos shows children helped her win the Milken Prize. Lemos understands the correlation between students’ physical and mental health and their ability to learn, said Jane Foley, senior vice president of the Milken Educator Awards.

The classroom walls adorned with words and pictures also reflect his style of teaching and mean different things to students:

  • At the back of the room: A “Hopes and Dreams” wall features photos of each child and an overview of their goals. “I hope to improve in math and reading to earn more money for my family,” one wrote. “I hope to gain enough knowledge to read big books,” wrote another.
  • On a side wall: A classroom library with dozens of books lets kids pick one they like and read at a standing desk for two nearby.
  • Next to Lemos’ desk: a whiteboard allows children to self-assess their progress on certain homework assignments. The board is visible to everyone, but Lemos says that doesn’t stop kids from pinpointing where they are accurately and recognizing when they need help and why.
  • Next to the classroom fountain: a space dedicated to the “explorer of the week” of the class who exhibits some of his favorites and takes charge of various activities of the week. They can also sit in a large office chair at one of the work tables in the room.

The seats are another unique feature. Before COVID, children could choose between normal classroom chairs, rocking chairs, stools, and chairs that go up and down for more restless learners. To help with contact tracing during COVID, Lemos assigned students to certain chairs, periodically rotating them around the room. She plans to return to the model of choice soon.

Pocatello-Chubbuck Superintendent Doug Howell praised the work Lemos put into his class.

“I immediately noticed how welcoming the environment she was able to create for her learners was,” he said.

It all adds up to an eclectic teaching style, Lemos acknowledged, but that’s how she likes it.

“I would say an overarching philosophy for my teaching is to just be true to yourself,” she said. “You could be like any other teacher, but you should be yourself.”

Dane Beorchia: Connecting Kids to Careers

Highland CTE teacher Dane Beorchia lectures students in his classroom.

As Lemos students bumped through town, Beorchia University’s prep medical terminology class discussed a clinical phenomenon: pus. The kind that oozes out of the skin like a pimple and the kind that abscesses underneath.

It’s stomach-turning stuff for some, Beorchia acknowledged, but it’s also a big part of his passion for connecting kids to careers.

Beorchia says discussing things like pus and other bodily phenomena gives her an edge when it comes to involving children. “They all have bodies, so these are things that naturally interest them.”

And it helps the career technical educator prepare students for jobs right out of high school.

But his superintendent, his students and the Milken Foundation say he does much more.

“Dane has an innate ability to make immediate connections and meaningfully engage with his learners,” Howell said.

“He makes his classes challenging, but not overwhelming,” sophomore Dallas Call said, adding that Beorchia gives kids the “tools” and “time” to succeed.

Call highlighted Beorchia’s approach of letting learners familiarize themselves with the course material through their textbook and then following up with more in-depth discussions and lectures that provide more detail and clarify difficult points.

“And he’s just super accessible if you need help beyond that,” Call added.

Beorchia’s accessibility was a sticking point for the Milken Foundation, which highlighted its connections to students and helped other teachers transition to remote learning models when COVID-19 closed schools.

Beorchia’s time teaching in a virtual school has facilitated those efforts, he said. Things that seemed minor, like making sure students had their direct number at all times, had a big impact.

“My phone blew up for months,” Beorchia said of students who relied on him for extra help in his tougher college prep classes. He also knew the value of recording his remote lectures on Zoom, so students could easily reference them when needed.

“The pandemic has changed the way we approach and think about education, and Beorchia has pivoted with innovative teaching methods that have provided exceptional learning experiences for students,” Foley said.

Another focus helped Beorchia land the cash prize: Connecting kids to industry professionals.

Each semester, it lines up guest speakers – local doctors, pharmacists, dentists and others – to provide variety for students.

“Most of the time it’s a neighbor or someone I know in the community,” he says.

It’s another small effort that can pay off big, he added, referring to a recent speaker who engaged students by collecting their blood types in class.

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