Walden Grove High School teacher Christopher Laughland gets a hug from a student after receiving the Milken Educator Award in a surprise assembly. The award recognizes educators for their methods, accomplishments, contributions and inspiration to students.
When Christopher Laughland walked into the Walden Grove High School gym with his students Wednesday, he thought they were going to attend a special assembly to celebrate the school’s academic progress.
Laughland, 30, had no idea that state Superintendent John Huppenthal and other officials from the Arizona Department of Education and Sahuarita Unified School District came to present him with a $25,000 check.
“My administration had been telling me it was just to recognize the school as an up-and-coming school,” he said. “Evidently, they’re really good at keeping secrets.”
Laughland, an English and audiovisual teacher at Walden Grove, won the Milken Educator Award, which recognizes teachers and other educators for their teaching methods, accomplishments, contributions to education and inspiration they provide to students.
The award targets early- to mid-career teachers, principals and other educators.
The Milken Family Foundation works with education departments in 49 states and Washington, D.C., to identify potential award winners.
The award is given every year to one educator in those states.
“It’s sort of the Grammys of teaching, to come out and celebrate teachers who are highly respected by their students or highly respected by other teachers,” Huppenthal said.
Laughland and the rest of the school’s students and staff sat through almost 30 minutes of the assembly before Huppenthal began describing the winner, listing the teacher’s activities outside of the classroom.
In addition to teaching, Laughland is also Walden Grove’s baseball coach and student council adviser.
When Huppenthal mentioned these activities, Laughland still couldn’t believe the state superintendent was talking about him.
“When they started reading stuff off like that, it’s like, ‘No, it’s got to be somebody else that’s like me,’ ” he said.
The teacher was stunned as he walked toward the front of the gym to rousing applause after Huppenthal finally said his name.
Laughland began his teaching career in Phoenix in 2006 before returning to Indianapolis, where he was raised, for about four years.
He returned to Arizona to teach at Walden Grove, which opened in 2011.
Laughland said he’s achieved most of his success by creating fun lesson plans and engaging with his students.
“If you’re not having fun in the classroom, your kids aren’t going to have fun. So it’s just a correlation,” he said. “I don’t want to be bored as a teacher.”
Laughland doesn’t know what he’ll do with the money, but he’ll likely stash some away for himself and his wife. The couple are expecting a baby in June.
He might also donate some money to Walden Grove’s baseball team, he said.
But the validation that comes from the award is more significant than the cash, he said.
“Obviously the money’s great, but getting recognition for this and just reinforcing what I do for a living is priceless,” he said.