In the classroom, Elizabeth Landes feels free to be herself — “the king of my own kingdom," empowered to try new methods of teaching her biology and environmental science students.
In the Marple Newtown High School gymnasium Thursday, Landes was not as comfortable when she was surprised by roaring applause from students, fellow teachers, and public officials.
The reason behind it was something even the always-in-control teacher didn’t see coming: an award naming her one of the country’s finest teachers, along with a $25,000 check.
“Can I have a minute?” she asked the throng of reporters that surrounded her after the announcement. “I don’t even know what to say."
After pausing, she said: “It’s my lifetime dream to do the best that I can for my students. To be recognized for it, it’s just an amazing honor."
Landes, 36, won a Milken Educator Award, bestowed each year upon a select group of teachers nationwide — this year, up to 40 — and touted as the “Oscars of teaching." She is the only Pennsylvania teacher this year to receive the honor.
“You don’t find us. We find you," said Jane Foley, the Milken Educator Awards’ senior vice president, who came from California on Thursday to present the award to Landes during a school assembly that she was told was going to be about college and career readiness.
Explaining the award, Foley told students that teachers aren’t recognized in the same way as other professionals at the top of their fields — like athletes, actors, or scientists. “Only if we elevate the teaching profession will talented young people like you” consider joining it, she said.
She then enlisted six students from the filled high school bleachers, handing them placards with numbers on them to show the dollar figure of the award that the still-unnamed teacher would win. At first, students held up a dollar sign, a 2, and a 5. But Foley kept asking additional students to add zeros.
“Do you want to know who it is?” she asked the crowd. As she called Landes’ name, the school’s band started to play, and the bleachers thumped with students stomping.
Wearing a gray Marple Newtown T-shirt, Landes was smiling but appeared nervous as she descended the bleachers onto the gymnasium floor, where former Milken winners held a large ceremonial check with her name on it.
Pedro Rivera, Pennsylvania’s secretary of education, commended Landes for “how much time and effort she puts into supporting her students” and the community. He praised her students’ academic success — last year, averaging 4.3 out of 5 on their AP exams — as well as her use of data to differentiate her lesson plans for students at different achievement levels.
Rivera also noted Landes’ efforts to create a culture of trust and respect in the classroom, and to “engage her students throughout the community.” Landes started a sophomore service learning project that involves students selecting a charity and raising money for it.
Taking the microphone, Landes thanked the crowd, including students “for coming ready to work.” She also credited her “fellow biology teachers — we work as a team.”
She remained stunned after the ceremony. “Never in my life would I expect or really even want attention, so this is hard for me,” she said.
Landes grew up in Long Island, graduated from Villanova University, and began teaching in Marple Newtown in 2006. She remembers being in first grade and wanting to become a teacher.
“I think that I’m a helper of people. That’s just kind of what my calling is," Landes said. “I saw that quality in my own teachers, and I realized I could stand in front of all of these kids and help them learn new things, too."
As a child, Landes was always interested in being a teacher for whatever grade she was in at the time, but she ultimately settled on teaching high school. It’s a “nice blend” of being able to teach higher-level content, Landes said, “but also still be very involved in my students’ lives.”
Of how she’ll spend the $25,000, which comes with no restrictions, "I have no idea right now. I’m going to have to think about that,” she said with a laugh. “This is all just a big surprise right now.” Landes will officially receive the prize at a forum in Indianapolis in March with other Milken winners; part of the award’s aim is to connect teachers with a network of top educators.
Landes did know Thursday that she was eager to return to the classroom. “I’ve heard that I’m covered for the rest of the day," she said, "but to tell you the truth, I want to get back to them.”