Cooper, Class of 2015, Receives Milken Educator Award

Athens State University

In a surprise assembly, Kelsey Cooper, an eighth-grade math teacher at Discovery Middle School, received a $25,000 Milken Educator Award for her excellence and innovation in education. Cooper epitomizes creativity and leadership as she creates real-world math problems for her students to engage in, invites parents into the education process with consistent communication between her students and their families, and even sends off each student with a handwritten note at the end of every school year. 

Milken Educator Awards Senior Vice President Dr. Jane Foley and Alabama State Superintendent of Public Education Dr. Eric Mackey surprised Cooper with the honor before cheering students, colleagues, state and local officials, and the media. Cooper is among more than 60 educators nationwide to receive the recognition during the 2021-2022 school year. 

Hailed as the “Oscars of Teaching,” the Milken Educator Awards celebrate, elevate and activate the American teaching profession and inspire young, capable people to join it. 

“Teachers who can make complex education tasks like linear equations and the Pythagorean Theorem come to life are a gift to their students, creating real-world applications for every-day learning,” commented Dr. Foley, who herself is a 1994 Milken Educator from Indiana. “Educators like Kelsey Cooper are unique and invaluable to their communities, and that’s exactly who the Milken Family Foundation seeks to honor through the Awards.” 

The Milken Educator Award is not a lifetime achievement honor. Recipients are heralded while early to mid-career for what they have achieved — and for the promise of what they will accomplish given the resources and opportunities inherent in the Award. 

“We extend our state’s sincere congratulations to Madison City School System teacher Kelsey Cooper for being named a national Milken Educator,” said State Superintendent of Education, Dr. Eric Mackey. “Providing students with both real-world and group-oriented learning experiences has been shown to be an effective classroom tool. Milken Educator Kelsey Cooper has developed a dynamic learning environment within her local school system, which promotes K-12 mathematics knowledge, independent student thinking, and advanced problem solving. Her commitment to furthering student achievement using innovative technology and best practice classroom instruction is truly an outstanding example of educational leadership. With the consistent support from her local school system, parents, and wonderful colleagues, Mrs. Cooper has been able to inspire students to thrive academically at even greater levels of achievement. The state of Alabama is truly thankful to the Milken Family Foundation for this wonderful opportunity it has created for highly qualified educators to be recognized nationally, for their classroom and teaching success. Milken Educator Kelsey Cooper is an outstanding example of K-12 excellence.” 

Oprah, a longtime education advocate, shared her congratulations to this year’s winners in a video message shared earlier this week thanking “the most incredible educators around the country” and acknowledging her deep appreciation for the “tireless work” they do.

More about Kelsey Cooper 

Innovation: Cooper’s classroom is like Grand Central Station: a beehive of productive activity where learning goals are evident and students buzz with enthusiasm and confidence. Cooper covers her walls with real-world math activities and problems ready for solving. Students cluster in small learning groups with peers, learning to work as a team, and present evidence to support their ideas in an environment that supports questioning and promotes risk-taking. They create blueprints for water parks when learning about linear equations and the Pythagorean Theorem, design city maps to demonstrate understanding of parallel lines cut by a transversal, and write stories whose characters represent shifts in quadratic equations. 

Communication: During the pandemic, Cooper’s ease with technology and devotion to the well-being of both students and colleagues made her invaluable. She helped the math department with instructional pacing, creating a seamless transition for students who had to quarantine and used virtual breakout rooms to maintain student collaboration. She joined daily one-on-one online visits with students, for both math assistance and social-emotional check-ins. Cooper reached out to parents daily during the pandemic to make sure families were up to date on their students’ work. The relationships Cooper builds with pupils and families are genuine and long-standing. When students leave her classroom, she gives each a handwritten letter with a return address, so they can always reach her if they need her. 

Leadership: Cooper, who started at Discovery as a student teacher, has led the school’s math department for three years and is highly respected by her colleagues. She became a National Board Certified Teacher in 2019 and now mentors colleagues going through the certification process. Cooper takes a team approach to professional learning, looking for and supporting her colleagues’ strengths. In addition to her work in the classroom, she coaches softball, sponsors several clubs and works with student teachers. 

Education: Cooper earned a bachelor’s in 2015 from Athens State University and is currently pursuing a master’s in instructional leadership from University of West Alabama. 

More information about Cooper, plus links to photos and video from today’s assembly, can be found on the Milken Educator Awards website at:

More about the Milken Educator Awards: “The future belongs to the educated.”

Along with the financial prize, Milken Educator Award recipients join the national Milken Educator Network, a group of more than 2,800 top teachers, principals and specialists. The network serves as a rich resource for fellow educators, legislators, school boards and others dedicated to excellence in education.

  • The 2022 honorees will also attend an all-expenses-paid Milken Educator Awards Forum, where they will network with their new colleagues as well as veteran Milken Educators and other education leaders about how to increase their impact on K-12 education. In addition, they will learn about how to become involved in the Milken Friends Forever (MFFs) mentoring program, in which freshman Milken Educators receive personalized coaching and support from a Milken Educator veteran on ways to elevate their instructional practice and take an active role in educational leadership, policy and practice.
  • Over the years, more than $140 million in funding, including $70 million for the individual cash awards, has been devoted to the overall Milken Awards initiative, which includes powerful professional development opportunities throughout recipients’ careers. 
  • Veteran Milken Educators frequently go on to serve in leadership roles at state, national and international levels. 
  • “We find you. You don’t find us!” Unlike most teacher recognition programs, the Milken Educator Awards initiative has no formal nomination or application process. Candidates are sourced through a confidential selection process and then reviewed by blue ribbon panels in each state. The most exceptional candidates are recommended for the award, with final selection made by the Milken Family Foundation. 
  • The $25,000 cash award is unrestricted. Recipients have used the money in diverse ways. For instance, some have spent the funds on their children’s or their own continuing education, financing dream field trips, establishing scholarships, and even adopting children. 

To get regular updates on the surprise Milken Educator Award events or to watch the award events unfold, follow and use the #MilkenAward hashtag on Facebook (@MilkenEducatorAwards), Twitter (@Milken), YouTube (/MilkenAward), Instagram (MilkenFamilyFdn), and TikTok (@MilkenAward).

For more information, visit or call the Milken Family Foundation at (310) 570-4772.

About the Milken Educator Awards
The first Milken Educator Awards were presented by the Milken Family Foundation in 1987. The awards provide public recognition and individual financial rewards of $25,000 to elementary and secondary school teachers, principals and specialists from around the country who are furthering excellence in education. Recipients are heralded in early to mid-career for what they have achieved and for the promise of what they will accomplish. The initiative was created by the Milken Family Foundation, which celebrates 40 years of elevating education in America and around the world. Learn more at

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