Two Nebraska educators receive $25,000 award for their teaching

Nov. 22, 2023, midnight ·

Leslie McIntosh with her daughter
Leslie McIntosh, a fifth-grade teacher in Syracuse, hugs her daughter, who is a student at the middle school, after receiving a $25,000 award. She said she was shocked to hear her name announced. (Courtesy Photo/Milken Family Foundation)

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When fifth-grade teacher Leslie McIntosh heard her name announced as the winner of a $25,000 award, she sat frozen in shock. Her students and colleagues cheered around her.

“I could think of 15 other people before myself that would receive an award in this school because this place is just filled with the best educators in Nebraska,” McIntosh said. “I couldn’t believe it.”

McIntosh teaches reading and English Language Arts at Syracuse-Dunbar Avoca Middle School. She was one of two Nebraska educators to receive the Milken Educator Award this school year.

Leslie McIntosh teaching her fifth graders
Leslie McIntosh teaches her fifth-grade students at Syracuse-Dunbar-Avoca Middle School. She has been a teacher for 12 years. (Photo by Jolie Peal/Nebraska Public Media News)

The Milken Family Foundation presents this award to honor educators across the country. Stephanie Bishop, vice president of the awards at the foundation, said in the assembly that educators are the ones who prepare everyone else to get awards like Oscars and Nobel Prizes.

“We believe that educators have the most important job in our country, because they are entrusted with the awesome responsibility of preparing all of you for a bright future,” Bishop said.

Over the past few years, part of that job has changed due to teacher shortages, budget cuts and the pandemic. McIntosh said she used that change to improve herself.

“In the midst of struggle in the world, I realized how important my job was,” she said. “I knew that I needed to come out of COVID as a better teacher, and not as a scared teacher or fearful teacher. I needed to help these kids succeed.”

McIntosh has been teaching for 12 years. One of her current students, Mckenna Schmitt, said McIntosh is always willing to help her fifth graders.

“She's very forgiving and she never gets mad,” Schmitt said. “When people don't get their homework done, she talks them through it.”

Lyla Biehl, another one of McIntosh’s students, said her teacher makes reading fun. She recalled how on Halloween, the students got to create their own scary stories to share with the class.

“She’s just been one of the best teachers,” Biehl said.

Students holding numbers to show $25,000
Nebraska Department of Education Commissioner Brian Maher holds up the final zero alongside students at Bellevue West High School. A similar presentation of the $25,000 award occurred at Syracuse-Dunbar-Avoca Middle School. (Photo by Jolie Peal/Nebraska Public Media News)

To McIntosh’s students, $25,000 was a huge surprise. As part of the assembly, Bishop had students come up front and hold cards up one at a time. She started with students holding a “2” and a “5” for $25. Then, more students held up their cards to add zeros.

Walker Janssen, one of her fifth graders, said seeing the amount of money his teacher won was crazy.

“So, first it was $250, and I was like ‘That’s a lot,” he said. “Then, it was $25,000 and I was like ‘Woah.’”

Bellevue West High School math teacher Jacob Eitzen was the other recipient of the Milken Educator Award this school year. He was chosen because of his ability to make math engaging for his students.

Jacob Eitzen speaks after receiving award
Jacob Eitzen, a math teacher at Bellevue West High School, received a $25,000 award from the Milken Family Foundation. Eitzen has taught for ten years. (Courtesy Photo/Milken Family Foundation)

Eitzen has been teaching for ten years. He said he took over the AP Statistics class at the high school with little idea of how to teach it. Now, he loves the class.

“I want to take this opportunity to encourage everybody that there's probably some things that you might see on the horizon, or maybe you're too afraid to go do that one thing because it seems very difficult and something that you might not be able to do,” Eitzen said at the assembly. “But that's something that I took on, and eventually just put enough hard work that it became a passion of mine.”

Since Eitzen started teaching AP Statistics, enrollment in the class went from 20 students to almost 80 every year.

Eitzen said he became a teacher to help prepare the next generation. McKenzie Brannon, a senior and one of Eitzen’s students, said he does that by ensuring each student follows along with his lessons.

Jacob Eitzen teaches math
(Photo by Jolie Peal/Nebraska Public Media News)

“He'll assign different kinds of teaching methods that makes sure that everyone can understand what he's teaching,” Brannon said. “I think that's really something deserving an award because some teachers only teach their style, not other styles.”

Brannon is in Eitzen’s Calculus BC class at the high school. She said it’s his first time teaching that class, and he’s already doing a good job with it.

Eitzen said he’s able to teach the way he does and take on these new classes because of the school’s support.

“Having an environment where I can teach the way that I do speaks to why this award comes,” he said. “I think that having the freedom to teach in certain ways and having the ability to do a variety of things for my students has gone into something like this.”

After receiving his award, Eitzen was eager to get back to his class.

His students already got out of a test for the day, but he wasn’t going to let them leave without learning something new. He put a problem on the board that the class was working through on a previous day.

For both Eitzen in Bellevue and McIntosh in Syracuse, the one thing more important than a $25,000 award is teaching their students.