By Mike Marsee
Brooke Powers was certainly surprised, but she might not have been the only one.
The news that Powers, who never dreamed of becoming a mathematics teacher, received a national award for her work in that area might also have come as a surprise to those who taught her in the Mercer County schools.
“I probably would have been voted the least likely to be a math teacher by my math teachers,” Powers said.
After starting down other career pathways, Powers found her passion as a math teacher who motivates her students to succeed. A 7th-grade teacher at Beaumont Middle School (Fayette County), she was rewarded for her success Jan. 9 when she became the latest Kentucky recipient of a Milken Educator Award and the $25,000 prize that accompanies it.
Powers is one of 44 Milken Educators who will be honored in 2017-18, the only one in Kentucky and the first in Kentucky since 2015. She received her award at a surprise announcement at her school. She had been worried about how she was going to make sure her students behaved during an assembly that the faculty was told would be about student testing before she found out it wasn’t about testing at all.
“I can fully say I was completely shocked,” she said. “I had no idea.”
Powers said that when she was growing up, she aspired to a career in marketing and public relations. When she went to the University of Kentucky, her dream changed to becoming an agriculture teacher.
In her blog about teaching middle school math, Powers said that as a student she “viewed math as a set of rules that stood between me and an A.”
“I was a memorizer, so I could do well on tests but I never understood what I was doing,” she said last week. “I always laughed and said that until I taught algebra, I didn’t fully understand the distributive property. Once I started teaching and drawing it out and trying to explain it to kids, I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh. Why didn’t somebody show me this?’”
Powers said she rejects the idea that some students are math-oriented and others are not.
“That’s one of my least favorite misconceptions,” she said. “One of my favorite people always says that people would never go to a dinner party and say, ‘You know, I can’t read at all. Can’t read a word.’ But people brag about the fact that they aren’t math people and they aren’t good at math.
“I always tell parents during open house that they have to ban ‘Math is hard’ from their house. Anybody can be a math person. Some people have just had bad experiences in math that make them feel like they’re not, but it’s never too late to become a math person.”
Denis Beall, the principal at Beaumont Middle, said Powers works hard to make sure all of her students understand math.
“Brooke’s an absolute rock star,” Beall said. “She goes way above and beyond to make sure every single one of her kids can be successful. But more importantly, she makes sure every child in her room knows that they are cared about, and that somebody wants them to succeed and gives them that support to be successful. No matter what their experience may have been with math before that, they all get excited about it when they’re in her classroom.”
Powers was a public service and leadership major at UK and was on track to graduate early before she decided to take a methods of teaching course that led her to a semester of student-teaching.
She said she had an effective mentor that semester in Christi Hack, then a teacher at Western Hills High School (Franklin County) and now an assistant principal at Jessamine Career and Technology Center (Jessamine County) who pushed her outside her comfort zone and helped develop her into a stronger teacher.
“I love going back and reading my journal entries, because some days I was going to be a teacher and other days I was going to run far, far away,” Powers said. “My mentor pushed me hard and that was wonderful. It made my first year of teaching a breeze, because I’d already been put through the wringer.
“The biggest thing was that I learned to just fall in love with kids’ personalities. They’re so much fun and they’re so exciting.”
Powers moved to Virginia and became an agriculture teacher, and she said it was there that an inspiring principal unwittingly steered her toward the math classroom.
“She said, ‘Brooke, how come students can do fractions in the wood shop that can’t in the math classroom?’” Powers said. “I went back to school and got a degree in math and started teaching math. I saw kids liked when we applied math to the real world. I just fell in love and I never looked back.”
Powers is in her eighth year in the Fayette County schools and her seventh at Beaumont Middle.
“She’s a great teacher leader. I am blessed to have her working with our students and being a leader in our school and our district,” Beall said.
Powers, a mother of two children who are in the 1st and 4th grades, said nothing has motivated her more to become a better teacher than watching her own children learn.
“Probably being a mom has been the thing that has pushed me the hardest to be a good teacher, because I’ve seen how my kids have been engaged and excited,” she said. “There’s something about entrusting someone with your own children eight hours a day that makes you want to do everything you can to take care of these guys.”
Consequently, she said she’ll probably spend a substantial part of her $25,000 prize on her children.
“I think I’ll probably do something special with my kids. I think I’ll take part of it and do something really fun with them this summer to just thank them,” Powers said. “When you’re a teacher’s kid, sometimes you come last, unfortunately. They have sacrificed a lot so that I could succeed.”
Milken Educator Awards are presented by the Milken Family Foundation to teachers in the early to middle stages of their careers for what they have achieved and the promise of what they will accomplish.
In addition to the $25,000 prize, Powers’ honor includes membership in the National Milken Educator Network, a group of more than 2,700 educators dedicated to strengthening their profession.
“Our teachers are the most courageous and the most dedicated group of people you’ll ever meet, and it’s about time in society that we started recognizing that,” Commissioner of Education Stephen Pruitt said. “It’s time to get back to recognizing and celebrating the profession that creates all others, and that’s what this does for us.”
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