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Educator receives ‘Oscar of teaching’

Elizabeth Landes tries to get through to her high school students that “being smart can be cool.’’

Judging by the results, there are a lot of hip students in her biology and AP environmental sciences classes in the Marple Newtown School District, Delaware County.

So successful and highly regarded is Landes that she was one of 40 educators nationwide honored with the Milken Family Foundation’s prestigious Milken Educator Award this year – called the “Oscar of teaching’’ by Teacher magazine.

“It’s really fun to teach high school students,’’ said Landes, who received $25,000 for the award. “They are really in their formative years and are a great audience to push my agenda that being smart can be cool. I think they come away feeling empowered to enjoy learning and not shy away from it for social pressure reasons.’’

Jean Foley, senior vice president of the Milken Educator Awards, noted that the awards are given to teachers in early- to mid-career for not only what they have achieved, but also “for the promise of what they will accomplish’’ with the resources and opportunities provided by the honor.

“At a time when STEM instructors are in high demand, Elizabeth Landes is a role model for mentoring others and inspiring future scientists,’’ Foley said. “She is a master differentiator who works tirelessly to meet students’ needs across all levels of learning.’’

The class average of Landes’ students on the 2019 AP biology exam was 4.3 out of a possible 5, with 62 percent of her students getting a perfect score.

But Landes, who has been teaching for 14 years, values working with students of all abilities. In addition to teaching AP environmental science to 11th- and 12th-graders, she teaches 9th- and 10th-grade biology.

“I enjoy teaching all levels of students and the diversity it brings to my day,’’ she said. “In going from one class to another, I might completely change my vocabulary, and my persona changes throughout the day.’’

One of Landes’ pet projects is having her high school students prepare environmental science presentations to give to elementary students on Earth Day every year.

“These are hands-on learning projects, and it really encourages my students to be prepared to go in and be a teacher for a day,’’ Landes said. “They have to answer questions, and elementary school students can ask some really challenging questions. It’s great to see how the younger kids look up to them. It gets the younger kids excited to be a high school student someday.’’

Unlike most educator recognition programs, the Milken award has no formal nominating or application process. Candidates are sourced through a confidential selection process and then reviewed by blue ribbon panels in each state.

The announcement of Landes’ Milken award was a surprise to her and the school staff. They thought they were going to a school assembly featuring state Education Secretary Pedro Rivera. He was there but his job that day was to announce Landes’ award.

“Being selected to receive the Milken Educator Award is an impressive honor and demonstrates Ms. Landes’ commitment to providing comprehensive science instruction to her students, both inside of the classroom and outside of it,’’ Rivera said. “We thank her for her outstanding work and for serving as a role model for Pennsylvania’s educators.’