The Franklin County school where Lisa Bowman ’97 teaches was abuzz this fall with preparations she believed were to welcome Virginia Department of Education Superintendent for Instruction Jo Lynne DeMary. Bowman admired the flower bouquets in the hallways at Burnt Chimney Elementary School, smiled at the balloons and decorations, and guided her young students into the auditorium for a school-wide assembly.
Not long into the presentation, Bowman realized that although Superintendent DeMary was indeed at the school, the event — and the adornments, the special visit, and all the cheering — was for her. She was one of only two people in Virginia to receive the prestige and the $25,000 that come with a Milken Family Foundation National Educator Award. Called the “Oscar of teaching” by Teacher Magazine, selection for the Milken awards is intentionally secretive and not even Bowman’s colleagues knew she was being considered.
“I wish every educator could get something like this,” said Bowman, an alumna of Mary Baldwin’s Baldwin Online and Adult Programs. “It elevates the profession. It brings respect and awareness to what we do as teachers.”
The Milken award committee does not divulge the specific criteria for choosing its winners, but Burnt Chimney Elementary Principal James Mullens readily offered examples of Bowman’s innovative work. When she taught science at the school, Bowman teamed with the Blue Ridge Water and Soil Conservation District to create a pond and stream on school property to study aquatic plant and animal life. Now, as a fourth-grade reading and writing teacher, she incorporates small touches in the classroom such as reading aloud every day. Bowman was Franklin County’s Teacher of the Year in 2001 and serves as a mentor for new teachers at the school.
“Many times, she does things with the whole school in mind, not just her particular lesson on one given day,” Mullens said.
Bowman had moments during her Mary Baldwin education when she nearly gave up on becoming a teacher. She often thought her struggle with math would end her breakneck progress toward earning her undergraduate degree. But an Mary Baldwin professor with an unusual allergy finally helped her make sense of numbers.
An allergy to chalk dust forced Charles Houston, Mary Baldwin adjunct professor in the Master of Arts in Teaching program, to instruct his students at their desks, not at the chalkboard at the front of the class. It was just what Bowman needed; she mastered math and even incorporates some of his teaching style into her own.
In 1998, after taking classes at Virginia Western Community College and Mary Baldwin, Bowman became the first in her family to earn her undergraduate degree. She completed two years of course work in about one year at Mary Baldwin and graduated cum laude. Last year, she earned a master’s degree in education from the University of Virginia.
In addition to her elementary-school duties, Bowman teaches a Virginia Western Community College course on techniques for teaching reading to young children — in the Roanoke Higher Education Center, where she took classes as a Mary Baldwin student. Mary Baldwin will celebrate its 20th anniversary in Roanoke in November.
Wealthy philanthropist brothers Lowell and Michael Milken created the Milken Family Foundation in 1982 and presented the first National Educator Awards in California in 1987. Since that time, more than $50 million has been awarded to teachers like Bowman. Although she does not yet know how she will spend the award money, which will be presented in April 2005, Bowman said the payoff has already come in countless congratulations and recognition for her school and the teaching profession.
A scrapbook given to Bowman by the Burnt Chimney staff bulges with pictures and pieces of decorations from the day she was presented with the award, cards, and press clippings. She says she’ll consult it when she has a bad day, which is not often.
“She’s just as genuine and kind as she is intelligent,” Mullens said.