Point Pleasant Borough Teacher is Only NJ Teacher Receiving $25,000 National Award
Fourth Grade Nellie Bennett Teacher Rachel Tonkovich Stunned by Announcement
When fourth grade teacher Rachel Tonkovich's name was announced as the winner of a $25,000 national teacher award on Tuesday morning, she was so stunned she couldn't move.
Tonkovich found out in a surprise announcement at Nellie F. Bennett Elementary School in Point Pleasant Borough that she is the only teacher in New Jersey this year who is winning the prestigious Milken Family Foundation award that honors early career teachers who successfully use innovative classroom practices and community leadership skills.
When Tonkovich's name was called during a crowded ceremony at the school gymnasium, it took her a few minutes to be able to stand, walk to the front and accept the check and a lot of hugs from her administrators and colleagues.
"I'm speechless, thank you so much," Tonkovich said, accepting the award and congratulations from Nellie Bennett Principal James Karaba and other officials. "Am I dreaming?"
Later, in an interview, Tonkovich said the moment of the announcement was a shock.
"I felt like I was going to faint," Tonkovich said, laughing. "I knew one of the teachers here was going to get this, but I had no idea it was me.
"I never thought in a million years that I would be the one," she said. "Everyone here is just so great. Everyone here is a team player. We plan together, we work together. I wish everyone here could get this."
What will she do with the money?
"I have no clue," Tonkovich said, admitting the surprise announcement and flurry of cameras clicking around her was "overwhelming."
"Maybe I'll save it for college for my kids," she said, smiling and fingering the envelope.
Tonkovich, 34, has lived with her husband, Brian, on Bluefin Drive in Brick Township for the past three years. She has two children, a three-year-old son and one-year-old daughter. (She did not want the children's names used.)
She has 13 years of teaching experience, including the past eight years at Nellie Bennett.
"I love teaching," Tonkovich said. "When I was young, I used to play school.
"I think the best thing about it is when I see my kids learning and understanding," Tonkovich said. "When they have that 'ah ha' moment."
After Tonkovich was congratulated by all of the local administrators and state and foundation officials, it was her students' turn.
They rushed towards her, hugging her and squealing with delight.
The award honors young teachers who use innovative classroom techniques with results, as measured in their students' standardized tests, and demonstrate leadership qualities, said Dr. Jane Foley, senior vice president of the Milken Family Foundation, who flew from California with a camerman for the award ceremony.
"Mrs. Tonkovich is the only teacher in New Jersey to win this award this year," Foley said, after announcing her name.
During the crowded assembly, where the elementary school students fidgeted while waiting along with local and state officials to find out who won the award, Foley finally announced the winner and told the excited students that Tonkovich "can spend the money any way she wants."
She added that Tonkovich is just one of the teachers at Nellie Bennett who has helped students achieve standardized test scores well above the state average.
Standardized test scores are one of the primary pieces of data that the state and foundation officials look at in winnowing down a list of potential recipients because Milken officials do not have access to report cards, Foley said.
Rochelle Hendricks, acting deputy commissioner of the state Education Department, also told the large gathering of
During the ceremony, Foley asked all teachers to stand up and asked their students to applaud them.
As for the foundation's criteria, one of the top priorities is to honor teachers early in their careers, Foley said.
"We give the award to teachers who are early to mid career," Foley said. "Our recipients are very young and that is very intentional. We find teachers who are using great practices early in their career.
"And we give this award to teachers who have not received other awards," she added. "We want to honor the unsung heroes who are doing this great work."
Foley said later that the Milken Foundation relied on the state Department of Education to do an initial search for eligible recipients and then chose Tonkovich from that list.
"We look for teachers who use innovative teaching practices in the classroom with results," Foley said. "We look for teachers who are leaders, who serve on committees, who have influence on the community. For example, Mrs. Tonkovich and her students raised $17,000 for St. Jude's Children's Hospital. That's how this teacher had influence in the community."
Foley had flown from California with a cameraman for the assembly at the elementary school this morning.
Nancy Besant, state Education Department Recognition Program Coordinator, said Tonkovich was one of five teachers in the state recommended to the Milken Family Foundation.
Besant, in an email later, listed the criteria for the selection of outstanding elementary and secondary school teachers, principals and other education professionals as Milken Educators as the following:
1. exceptional educational talent as evidenced by effective instructional practices and student learning results in the classroom and school;
2. exemplary educational accomplishments beyond the classroom that provide models of excellence for the profession;
3. individuals whose contributions to education are largely unheralded yet worthy of the spotlight;
4. early- to mid-career educators who offer strong long-range potential for professional and policy leadership; and
5. engaging and inspiring presence that motivates and impacts students, colleagues and the community.
Foley said the foundation does not accept applications or nominations for the award, but does get a short list of potential recipients from each of education departments in each of the states every year.
Foley said honorees are flown to Los Angeles to attend a teachers' forum. Hendricks said after the ceremony that she hopes to have all Milken honorees meet to share ideas.
Tonkovich earned her undergraduate degree at Caldwell College in Caldwell, N.J. and her masters degree at Kean University in Union, N.J.