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NIU alumna wins national teaching award

November 20, 2013
Melissa Leisner. Photo courtesy of Milken Family Foundation.

Melissa Leisner. Photo courtesy of Milken Family Foundation.

NIU alumna Melissa Leisner, a seventh-grade English and reading teacher at Prairie Knolls Middle School in Elgin, has won the prestigious Milken National Educator Award.

The honor, which includes an unrestricted cash prize of $25,000, was dubbed “The Oscars of Teaching” by Teacher Magazine.

Joining Illinois Superintendent of Education Christopher Koch to present the state’s 2013 Milken Educator Award was Jane Foley, senior vice president, Milken Educator Awards. Leisner is the only teacher in Illinois to be honored with a 2013 Milken Educator Award, which is bestowed upon up to 40 of the most exceptional educators across the country.

She loves language arts and sharing her contagious passion with her students and colleagues.

Constantly creating fresh, exciting lessons and seeking students’ opinions on new approaches; Leisner’s classroom is “a culture of student engagement, collaboration, high expectations and fun,” in the words of one admirer.

It’s easy to see why kids are often heard talking excitedly about her class; by tailoring the reading to their interests she instills a sense of confidence and ownership even in struggling learners.

One student proudly shared with Leisner that he’d read three books over the summer – a great accomplishment considering that he had never finished a novel prior to taking her class. She makes a point of getting to know her students as individuals, too, assessing their prior knowledge and building from there. Leisner even attends students’ out-of-school activities, and her interest in students continues well after they’ve moved on.

Milken Educator Awards logoLeisner’s efforts have paid off in test scores.

Overall, 65 percent of her students reach the mid-high to high level of achievement as measured by NWEA-MAP testing. Her “YA Café,” in which staff come to read a book aloud and discuss it with the students, became a permanent program handled by the school’s library media specialist. She’s even persuaded the entire staff to post signs on their doors announcing what they’re currently reading, sparking conversations with students.

The Milken Educator Awards, conceived by Lowell Milken to attract, retain and motivate outstanding talent to the teaching profession, is the nation’s preeminent teacher recognition program.

Since 1987, the Milken Family Foundation, co-founded by Michael and Lowell Milken, has devoted more than $136 million in funding to the Milken Educator Awards, including more than $64 million in individual Awards to nearly 2,600 recipients plus powerful professional development opportunities and networking with leading education stakeholders.

Read more about Leisner in the Elgin Courier-News and the Daily Herald.