MEMPHIS — Millington Central High School English teacher Katherine Watkins thought she was attending just another school assembly Thursday afternoon.
Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen gave a speech about students setting goals and following their dreams. Then the chairman of the Milken Family Foundation spoke about the importance of teachers.
He talked about how his foundation likes to reward teachers for their work, in the form of unrestricted checks for $25,000.
Then Watkins heard her name called.
Her jaw dropped open and she placed a hand over her heart in shock. Seated on the end of a row of chairs on the gymnasium floor, students seated around her erupted in screams and cheers for their teacher.
"I was stunned," Watkins said. "I felt my heart sink into my stomach. I couldn’t believe it. I had no idea this was coming."
Watkins was one about 45 teachers nationwide honored with the National Educator Award, a $25,000 unrestricted grant from the Milken Family Foundation.
Lowell Milken, the foundation's chairman and co-founder, came to Millington, just north of Memphis, to present the award.
He explained the reasoning behind his foundation's generosity.
"I'm here today because I believe teachers and principals have the most important jobs in our society," Milken said.
Unlike athletes and other celebrities, he said, teachers don't receive the recognition they deserve.
With the shock still fresh, Watkins said she agreed with that premise.
"I think that that’s definitely true," Watkins said. "We live in a culture that certainly doesn’t glorify selfless commitments to the causes of others. And teaching is definitely a selfless commitment."
Watkins is in her seventh year of teaching, her third year at Millington Central. She teaches English to juniors and seniors, including an Advanced Placement (AP) literature class.
Senior Brenna Allen said as soon as the students heard Milken describe the kind of teacher who wins the award, they knew who would receive it.
Allen and her friend Beatriz Barrera were seated just in front of Watkins for the assembly and turned around immediately to congratulate her with tears in their eyes.
"She's the whole school's favorite teacher," Barrera said.
The students said she invests her time in their academic and personal lives, even arranging a Sunday movie day at the school after her literature class finished reading Charles Dickens' great novel Great Expectations.
That decision was an easy one, Watkins said.
"Before I learned that I loved students, I lived for literature," she said. "And I think in order to be a truly great teacher, you have to be passionate about what you teach, and you have to have the ability to share that passion with others.
"And for me, going out of my way, using my extra time to try to bring students into my way of seeing literature, is what that’s all about."
Watkins admitted to hearing tell of her status as the favorite.
"I’ve heard speak of that," she said with a smile, "but we also have a whole staff full of incredible teachers, professionals who really keep me motivated a lot of the time.
"The work we do is very hard and if it weren’t for the close-knit group of professionals I work with, I don’t think I could do it."
The school's principal, Clint Durley, said Watkins' attitude "had an immediate impact on our school."
Teachers don't apply for the Milken award. "We find you," Milken joked.
Durley said he'd been working since June for Watkins to receive this recognition.
"I want you to know this is one of the most difficult secrets I've ever had to keep," he said.
As for what she will do with her $25,000, Watkins said she had no idea.
"If it’s like my other paychecks, it will go directly into my classroom," she said.
Follow Jennifer Pignolet on Twitter: @JenPignolet