Every year during election season, Knoxville’s West High School students get to choose whomever they want to run for office—pro athletes, pop stars, real politicians. They do their research and put together a campaign complete with ads and a budget, and then the candidates compete.
The students love it—and it’s just one reason why Paula Franklin’s AP Government class is a huge hit, with enrollment more than doubling since she started teaching. And it’s just one reason why the alumna (BA with a minor in secondary education in 2010 and a master’s in teacher education in 2011 through the Department of Theory and Practice in Teacher Education) was awarded the prestigious Milken Educator Award, dubbed by Teacher magazine as the “Oscars of Teaching.”
Last November, in a gymnasium packed with her peers, students, dignitaries, and media, Franklin was surprised by Milken Family Foundation Chairman and Co-Founder Lowell Milken and Tennessee Commissioner of Education Candice McQueen, who presented her with the honor and a check for $25,000.
“Lowell Milken loves a good surprise,” says Franklin, who still has no idea how she was chosen for the award.
Candidates are sourced through a confidential selection process and reviewed by blue-ribbon panels appointed by state departments of education. Those most exceptional are recommended for the award, with final approval given by the Milken Family Foundation.
“I don’t know why someone wanted to give me money, notoriety, and opportunity just for doing my job,” she continues. But ask any of her students or colleagues, and they will tell you Franklin does much more than just do her job.
For one, she uses creative cooperative learning projects, like the mock political campaign, that develop a historical basis as well as critical analysis of American democracy. She also takes an interest in each of her students—attending their extracurricular activities, reading books they like, or listening to podcasts they enjoy.
“You have to tell kids that you care about them. I tell them all the time that I love them and am proud of them. I take an interest and try to learn what they care about,” says Franklin, who has been a cheerleading sponsor and prom advisor at the school.
Her dedication is paying off. Eighty-two percent of her students pass the AP Government exam with an average score of 3.59, which far exceeds the national average of 50 percent and a 2.65 score. Her impact can be seen not only in test scores and report cards but in the way the students carry themselves.
“Whether they want to show you or not, you can see the confidence they get. And, that’s amazing,” says Franklin. “I want my students to learn about themselves as learners, and if they pick up something about how Congress works along the way, that’s great.”
Franklin writes personal congratulatory notes to students who do well on the AP exam. For senior Jessica Burks, these notes were an extra motivator for doing well on the test. “It was such a small gesture, but it gave me a tangible goal to work toward!” says Burks, who credits Franklin with helping her figure out what she wants to do after graduation.
“While Mrs. Franklin is a big part of why all of her students do so well both in her class and on the AP test,” says Burks, “she makes sure that we know that it’s also because of the hard work we put into studying and preparing for the test.
I think this is the mark of a teacher who really wants her students to believe in the quality of their work.” Burks says that in the classroom, Franklin encouraged her to be a better student, and outside of the classroom, she encouraged her to be a better person.
Indeed, Franklin is continuing a trend of teachers making a difference. Milken founded his organization, in part, thanks to teachers who encouraged and inspired him. Franklin became a teacher thanks to teachers who did the same for her.
“I’ve had the opportunity to learn from so many awesome educators that poured into me because they wanted me to be better. And I learned from them because I wanted to be better, too,” says Franklin, who now does the same for new teachers through mentorship and professional development sessions.
While it’s practically impossible not to see how much Franklin loves her job and her students, it’s not without challenges.
For that, she keeps in her desk a “bad day binder” full of notes from students that tell her how much they love her class and the impact she has had on them.
“When I think, this job is the worst, I look at these and I’m reminded, ‘No, it is awesome,’” she says. And with no plans to leave West High School anytime soon—or ever—chances are the bad day binder will become part of a multiple-volume set.
Photos courtesy of the Milken Family Foundation