By Susan Riddell

Nami Stager, science and writing teacher at Northern Elementary School (Fayette County), describes herself as patient, while 4th-grade student Deyna Bonilla calls her caring.

Stager is Kentucky’s newest recipient of the Milken Family Foundation National Educator Award, which includes an unrestricted $25,000 financial award.

Along with the cash prize, Stager will attend the Milken Family Foundation National Education Conference in Los Angeles next May. There she will meet and collaborate with the nation’s other 54 Milken recipients for 2010.

Stager, who was surprised with the award at a recent school assembly, quickly put the honor into perspective.

“I’m on a cloud right now. This is an amazing experience,” she said. “But it’s not about getting recognized. It’s about doing the right thing. Learning is the only way to get this kind of success.”

Stager said becoming a teacher wasn’t her first instinct. While a biology major in college, she had second thoughts and recalled how much she enjoyed being around children in previous experiences as a baby sitter and camp counselor. She thought about becoming a pediatrician but opted for the classroom instead.

She’s been teaching since 2005, and this is her third year teaching at Northern. Her husband, Robert, is a teacher at Tates Creek High School (Fayette County).

“She’s very dynamic in the classroom,” Northern Elementary Principal Meredith Dunn said of Stager. “I just observed her the other day, and her level of engagement with each child is 100 percent. She takes the children through so many levels – engagement, exploration and explanation. She completely capitalizes on 21st-century skills.

“Nami takes into consideration each and every child,” Dunn added. “She’s more a teacher of life skills than anything else. I guarantee she has a personal connection and relationship with every 4th-grader here, not to mention the students she has taught in the past.”

“She treats us like we’re all part of her family,” Bonilla added.

Stager, who credited the Northern Elementary staff when accepting her award, said that connection with students is vital in their education.

“That’s the biggest piece of the puzzle, I believe,” Stager said. “Students first need your trust and only then can they appreciate the content learned in the classroom. Each child has life experiences that have molded them. It is a teacher’s job to use those experiences to teach.”

Once she knew she wanted to teach, what to teach came as an easy choice for Stager.

“Science is my favorite because it lends itself to exploration,” said Stager, whose grandfather was a lifelong teacher in India. “Students can come up with their own definitions to things, and it’s the most awesome feeling to watch their discovery and when a kid’s eyes light up after they’ve got it.”

Stager places high expectations on each student.

“I don’t assume a child can only do so much,” she said. “I feel like teachers have to have that mutual understanding that each child comes in a different package, and you have to figure out how to get them out of their shell no matter what.”

Collaboration is very important to Stager.

“We collaborate for writing, and I work with our science/social studies lab teacher,” Stager said. “We don’t meet every day, but we are always working on ways to integrate subjects. It’s important to have these relationships because I feel very comfortable coming into work every day. I can ask for help and not be judged. I haven’t always taught 4th grade. I was a primary teacher before, and there is a huge difference.”

A member of the Fayette County Superintendent Advisory Council, Stager meets monthly with the council to discuss ways to make education in the Fayette County school district better.

“Some are new teachers, some are veterans,” Stager said. “We share positive things going on in our school, and we borrow ideas from others and tweak them to fit the needs of our schools. We also talk about concerns and things that are difficult. It’s a very helpful experience.”

Stager’s experience on the Superintendent Advisory Council will come in handy should she decide to move into administration in the future. She is working on her master’s in instructional leadership at Eastern Kentucky University.

“I would love to be a principal eventually, but I’m not in any hurry,” Stager said. “I enjoy the kids very much right now, and I’m thrilled to be in a classroom with them.”

Nami Stager,, (859) 381-3541