Educators go to head of the class: four women win prestigious Milken Family Foundation
When Yehudis Blauner was 5 or 6 years old, she lined up the dolls and teddy bears in her bedroom, set a whiteboard in front of them and wrote out the day’s agenda and lesson plan.
Three decades later, Blauner still has that whiteboard, with some of her words stained into it, a reminder of the little girl who dreamed of becoming a teacher.
On Sept. 25, Blauner, 36, the general studies principal of Cheder Menachem, became one of four Los Angeles-area Jewish school educators to win a $15,000 Jewish Educator Award for 2017 from the Milken Family Foundation in recognition of outstanding work.
The others were Adrienne Coffield, director of academic technology at Brawerman Elementary; Melody Mansfield, a Milken Community Schools English and creative writing teacher; and Jenny Zacuto, a language arts teacher at Yavneh Hebrew Academy.
“Oh my goodness, it’s still not real,” Blauner said in an interview several days after receiving the award. “I was very surprised. I was not expecting it at all. I work in a place where there are so many talented educators.”
What the winners have in common is a desire to prepare their students for succeeding in life beyond school.
Blauner, whose son is a third-grader at Cheder Menachem, an all-boys, kindergarten-through-eighth-grade school, said she considers her responsibilities as far more than a means to a paycheck.
“It is definitely more of a lifestyle than a job. I don’t look at it as coming in for a 9-to-5 job. I have a goal in mind,” she said. “It doesn’t end. It’s not about time frame or hours of operation; it’s more this never-ending need and desire to make sure my son and everyone’s son here have access to, I want to say, a respectable education, but it’s more than that. It’s an educational experience very meaningful to them that will help them and give them tools to do amazing things and change the world.”
Mansfield has been teaching at Milken Community Schools since 1998. She said she loves teaching about myths and sonnets and the importance of creative writing. In a phone interview, she said she hopes her winning the award will bring more attention to her work at the school.
“For me, what I hope it’s going to mean is it will bring more visibility to the creative writing program because my vision of the program is something that is helpful for all students, whether or not they are going to become writers,” she said.
Mansfield, who isn’t Jewish, has found gratification working with students whose Judaism emphasizes learning, challenging and deconstructing texts.
“The whole Jewish tradition is so welcoming and interesting to me because I am a non-Jewish person and the more I learned the more I loved being here,” she said. “The idea of God wrestling and everybody gets a voice, the idea of uniqueness of the individual, the kids are so respectful and generally so eager and, regardless of their ability level, they are all readily here. It’s just a real joy.”
As a K-6 teacher at the Reform Brawerman, Coffield has used technology to teach students about Jewish immigrants on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. In accepting her award, she thanked her fellow educators.
“I work with a very talented group of teachers,” she said during a Sept. 25 school assembly. “To even be in this room among you I feel very honored.”
Coffield also has her parents to thank for inculcating in her a love of education and technology. Her mother, Donna, was a teacher at the Temple Aliyah preschool for more than 30 years, and her late father, Michael, was a genius when it came to electronics, she said.
“There were so many stories people told me after he passed away,” Coffield said. “During the great power outage in the 1950s in New York, New York City went dark, and the way my family members tell it, [everywhere went dark] except for my father’s bedroom. I don’t know if he was a teenager at that point but he had rigged up some kind of generator and made light.”
Zacuto, whose Orthodox K-8 yeshiva-style school balances Torah learning with secular studies, said she owes her success to her students.
“I want to thank my students from the past and the present and the future because, truly, you are my greatest teachers,” she said. “You help me grow every day.”
Zacuto told the Journal she believes strongly in the power of feedback. That’s why she covers her students’ essays in comments and criticisms, both positive and negative. She has found that the more she has done so, the more students crave that kind of response.
“I have found if you give students back papers covered in comments they, over the course of the year, start to hunger for that feedback. They want that feedback, because they realize they are changing and growing,” she said.
The Milken Family Foundation, established in 1982 by brothers Michael and Lowell Milken, created the Jewish Educator Awards in 1990 in partnership with Builders of Jewish Education (BJE), an umbrella organization for the Jewish day school community. Three years earlier, the foundation established the Milken Educator Award, which recognizes outstanding public school teachers nationwide with an unrestricted $25,000 prize.
The Jewish Educator Award recognizes Jewish day school teachers in the Los Angeles area from kindergarten through 12th grade who teach a minimum of 15 hours per week and have taught for a minimum of seven years in a BJE-affiliated school. Winners are selected from approximately 800 eligible teachers at the 37 accredited BJE schools in the L.A. area.
Lowell Milken, chairman of the foundation, said the award recognizes the important work Jewish day school educators have done in the hopes they will continue.
“This is not a lifetime achievement award. This is a validation for all the good work they’ve done in the past but they are also receiving the award to encourage them to do their great work and achieve even higher levels,” he told the Journal.
The Jewish Educator Award differs from other initiatives in the Jewish community in its ability to bring together leaders from all of the denominations of Judaism, Milken said, pointing to the annual luncheon recognizing the winners.
“It’s one of the few events in our community where you will have all these members of the diverse Jewish community together and supporting education and supporting educators, and that’s very important because we often have differing views on different matters,” he said. “When it comes to education, we all want to join together because it is so important to students, and the financial demands are so great to send kids to Jewish day schools. Anything we can do to galvanize support for the Jewish day school is important.”
This year’s luncheon, the 28th annual, will be held Nov. 30 at the Luxe Sunset Boulevard Hotel.
Typically, a winner’s identity is kept secret until an announcement at a school assembly. Milken said the surprise is an important part of the initiative.
“The element of surprise creates drama where people have a memory of the event and it may impact them in a different type of way,” he said, adding that people are more impressed when a financial reward is attached to an honor.
“Unfortunately in America today, if you don’t say things with money, a lot of times nobody pays attention,” he said.
He added, “I think in connection with the Jewish Educator Award, I don’t view the financial award as the key element of it. It’s the recognition, the honor, celebration and the validation — the validation that all your efforts are noteworthy, have made a difference and will continue to make a difference.”