November 18, 2010 - The Maywood Elementary Flowers, clad in sky blue shirts and sunflower headbands, performed a song in the auditorium. School district officials and well-dressed guests looked on, the news cameras rolled and third-grade teacher Tamara Garfio sat with her class near the back of the room.
She had no clue it was all for her.
In a surprise announcement Wednesday, Garfio received the Milken Educator Award, an honor given to about 60 teachers nationwide each year that comes with a prize of $25,000 — no strings attached. The award, presented by the Milken Family Foundation, was created in 1987 to motivate gifted teachers in a field that typically doesn't come with lavish financial rewards.
Some may label the prize the Oscars of education, but the scene at Maywood Elementary School was more like the Publishers Clearing House sweepstakes. The award's creator, Lowell Milken, called Garfio's name after a buildup that stirred the room full of children. She was stunned. Her eyes welled with tears, her legs shook. Then, she was handed a giant check.
"I'm in shock, complete shock," she said as she was swarmed by cameras and reporters and the superintendent. "I just love my job."
Milken said Garfio's passion for teaching earned her the prize, which involves no application process. ("You don't apply for it," he said, "we find you.") And by the rubric the foundation used to select the winners, she stood out not just among her peers in the Los Angeles Unified School District, or even in California, but across the country.
"We believe that you have the potential to make even greater achievements in the future," he told her during the assembly. "Thank you for making a career as a teacher."
Garfio is one of the best-performing teachers at one of the best-performing schools in the district. Maywood, perched a block away from the Vernon city line, has dramatically improved its academic performance in recent years.
The better test scores have come despite the challenges of having a student body in which most qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, an indicator of poverty, and a good portion of students are still learning English.
The Times published a value-added analysis of about 6,000 elementary school teachers in August, and Garfio scored "highly effective" in teaching math, English and overall. She was ranked in the top 5% of effective teachers in the district. Value-added analysis rates teachers based on their students' progress on standardized test scores year over year, and The Times used data from the 2002-03 through 2008-09 academic years.
Later Wednesday, as her class read, Garfio said the Milken prize was a recognition for everyone in the school. "Something like this is a reward to all teachers," she said. "I feel validated. I feel like I work hard every day."
Garfio, 35, a mother of three (including a 4-month-old), has taught since 2000, when she graduated from Cal State Fullerton. Her intention was always to work with children.
"I'm passionate, I know that," she said. "You truly have to like what you do. Really, inside your heart, you have to love what you do."
She relies on her instincts. She said she can tell "by their eyes, by their responses" if her students are comprehending her lessons.
Her students, Garfio said, are taught to be "life-long learners."
"I teach critical thinking; teaching to a test means nothing," she said. Her teaching style requires reaching back in her memory, to her days as a student. Although she admits that she did well in school, Garfio said she recalls her own deficits to remind her of the bumps students may face as they learn new material.
Her class of third-graders shared in her excitement. The students clamored around her after the assembly, throwing out adjectives to describe their teacher: Brilliant. Special. Incredible. Beautiful.
But don't forget: Strict.
Yamir Sanabria, 8, said Garfio pushes them to read big books and take on big numbers to multiply (they've made it up to three digits). That way "we can go to college and be a teacher like Miss Garfio," he said.
Why does he want to be a teacher? "Because she got that big check."