Theresa Cross, a winner of the nation’s most prestigious education award, the Milken Educator Award, took an unconventional route to teaching. In fact, it all started with a random Google search.
Overcome with boredom in her working life, Cross typed in these words: Challenging jobs in New Orleans.
She found one: teaching high school math in a school known for violence and poor student achievement. To make matters worse, it was 2006, just after Katrina, the most challenging period for education in New Orleans history.
Only 24 at the time, she joined other inexperienced, first year teachers instructing hundreds of fight-prone teenagers in makeshift trailer classrooms. Students didn’t have textbooks or supplies.
Now, 12 years later, she is on her way this month to Washington D.C. to join about 40 other teachers nationwide to celebrate winning the Milken Family Foundation’s 2017, $25,000 educator award.
On what seemed like a routine day this past December, she went to a ceremony in the Alice M. Harte Charter School gym that turned out to be all about her. In the secretly planned event, Lowell Milken, a foundation founder, presented her a Milken Educator Award, an achievement often compared to winning a Pulitzer Prize.
Later that night, still stunned by the day’s events, she found out she’d also passed a certification test that qualified her to move into school administration.
“It was the best day of my teaching career,” Cross remembered.
That day was also stellar for Harte, a K-8 school located in Algiers. “It’s a high point for our culture,” Robert Hill, Head of School, said. “All the things we hold dear, she personifies all that.”
Cross’ math students have a long history of testing “basic” or above on the state’s pressurized LEAP tests. That 100 percent passage rate ranks well above the state average and higher than other top scoring faculty at Harte. “No one else is at that level,” Hill said.
That student achievement led Hill and InspireNOLA, Harte’s charter management organization, to recommend Cross for the Milken award. Documentation that supported the recommendation indicate that Cross achieved these results with practical, hands-on activities.
The “real life” assignments she uses include racing beetles to teach mapping distances. Another assignment involves using the novel “The Most Dangerous Game” to teach making graphs.
A native of Ohio, Cross said that when she moved to New Orleans after Katrina, she had planned to pursue a dream of operating a concert location. She had just completed an MBA and thought that New Orleans would offer more job opportunities connected to that dream than Cleveland.
She soon discovered otherwise. After a job search that produced nothing, she took a position as a programming assistant at WYES. That job didn’t satisfy her need for challenge, so she completed a teachNOLA program that certifies college graduates to teach in New Orleans schools.
Now that she has reached “master teacher” status and has a Milken to her credit, she’s dreaming again, this time about impacting math instruction nationally. She wants to convince educators to adopt a math curriculum that includes a course in financial literacy. She says young people need to learn about everyday financial matters such as maintaining good credit scores and how to budget.
“I started to dream bigger,” Cross said. “Probably too big, but that’s okay.”