Harry Hurst teacher surprised with $25,000

Though a bit of time had passed since she’d heard the news, Lauren Waguespack still hadn’t quite processed everything.

The Harry Hurst Middle School sixth grade science teacher was sitting in her chair for an assembly at Hurst when a special visitor to the school, Lowell Milken, took the microphone to address the crowd.

He announced that he was there for a particular reason – to award a prize to a very deserving educator. That prize was revealed – creatively – by a group of Hurst students who brought up signs that collectively spelled it out: $25,000 to the winner, who would be the fourth and final Louisiana recipient of the 2023-24 Milken Educator Award.

Milken asked for an envelope and read the contents inside. Waguespack’s name emerged – and she was beside herself with disbelief.

“Every fiber of my being is shaking,” Waguespack said. “I’m just trying to wrap my head around it.”

The cash prize can be used for any purpose. State Superintendent Dr. Cade Brumley joined to celebrate Waguespack as a model for the state and nation.

Waguespack becomes a member of the Milken Educator network, a national group of professionals working to “Celebrate, Elevate, and Activate” the K-12 profession.

“Through her innovative teaching methods and profound commitment to student achievement, Ms. Waguespack’s impact resonates inside her classroom and throughout her state,” said Brumley. “Her hands-on approach to science takes students on a journey that helps prepare them for success after graduation.”

Hailed as the “Oscars of Teaching,” the awards will honor up to 75 recipients across the country in 2023-24 as part of the Milken Family

Waguespack’s shock was real – this is not an honor one can even apply for. She was completely unaware of even her candidacy for the award.

Recipients are sought out while early to mid-career for what they have achieved – and for the promise of what they will accomplish given the resources and opportunities afforded by the award.

Whether it is in her sixth grade science classroom, coaching the school’s dance team, or leading the district’s professional development opportunities, Waguespack’s enthusiasm for teaching has left its mark on nearly every corner of the community. Former students often visit her during their lunch periods and parents remain connected with her long after their students had her as a teacher.

In her classroom, Waguespack goes beyond conventional teaching methods to prepare her students for future success in STEM, creating an environment where learning becomes a captivating journey. When the class studied Newton’s Laws of Motion, she developed a Mars Rover Landing Project, and when the class began learning about pitch, frequency and wavelength, she incorporated audio and visual formats to enable students to better grasp the material. The efforts have paid off: Waguespack’s students receive high marks on the state science assessment, motivating them to attain even higher levels of achievement.

Waguespack’s influence extends far beyond the classroom, shaping her into a strong teacher leader and community advocate. Waguespack is often filmed by the school district during her classroom instruction to help other teachers learn from her practices. She is involved in nearly every committee on campus – chairing the School Improvement Team, leading the sixth-grade teacher faculty, serving as Technology Site Coordinator, mentoring new teachers and facilitating new teacher orientation at Harry Hurst Middle School, as well as volunteering as a state Teacher Leader Advisor.

A graduate of Southeastern Louisiana University, Waguespack earned a Bachelor of Science in education in 2010 and a Master of Education in educational leadership in 2021.

She has been part of the Hurst team for the past 12 years and has been a teacher for 13 overall.

“I started off in a path toward psychology, and that didn’t work out. I changed course toward education and once I got into that, I knew that’s where I was supposed to be,” she said. “I fell in love with it. I love everything about being a teacher … working with my students and with my fellow faculty members.”

One moment following the presentation saw Waguespack call her parents to let them know the news.

“That was amazing … my parents are probably my biggest support system – they support me in everything. I know they were proud,” Waguespack said. “My mom was crying on the phone.”

Milken beamed as he spoke about her, and about the cause as a whole.

“I’ve been doing this for 38 years,” said Milken, a philanthopist and who founded the Milken Educator Awards. In 1987. “Every one of these occasions is so special, because you’re always meeting different outstanding individuals.”

Milken said that his organization works with state departments of education across the country to form a list of potential nominees, and his foundation makes the decisions from there as to who will be honored.

He said, more than ever, there is a need today to recognize and appreciate educators and that while a lot of attention goes toward recruitment, those already in the field need to be appreciated, recognized and rewarded as well.

“We need to attract talented people in the teaching profession, but the talented people already in the profession, we need to retain and motivate,” he said.

Waguespack’s moment was made all the more memorable by a very lively and spirited crowd of Hurst students.

“That was incredible. (Waguespack) was a rock star today. (The Hurst atmosphere) was as good as they come,” Milken said.