When third-grade teacher Dion Jones started his day at Fairland Elementary School on Tuesday morning, he had no idea he would be going home with a $25,000 check.
At a surprise schoolwide assembly at 1:30 p.m., Jones became the latest of over 2,900 U.S. teachers to receive the Milken Educator Award, a national honor aimed at inspiring excellence in education.
“I was very shocked,” Jones told Bethesda Beat afterward. “At first, I couldn’t move out of my seat because I didn’t believe it was my name.”
Jane Foley, senior vice president of the Milken Family Foundation, was on hand Tuesday at the Silver Spring school. When she announced Jones’ name, the auditorium filled with over 600 students and 100 adults “erupted with great excitement.”
“They were all chanting and cheering his name,” she said. “To see students spontaneously react to their favorite teacher with so much energy was truly heartwarming.”
Lowell Milken and the Milken Family Foundation, based out of Santa Monica, Calif., created the initiative in 1987 to encourage young teachers across the country to continue in their important work as “unsung heroes” of the community, Foley said.
“This isn’t a Lifetime Achievement Award,” she said. “It intentionally goes to educators early in their career, because we know they have decades ahead of them.”
According to the foundation’s website, almost 3,000 awards have been given to date, each representing a $25,000 gift with no restrictions. Jones is the 18th recipient out of 35 for the 2022-23 school year, Foley said, and the only teacher in Maryland.
Candidates are sourced through a confidential selection process—no nominations or applications allowed. The foundation collaborates with each state’s Department of Education to collect information and determine candidates. The final selection is made by the foundation, a small team of five full-time staff.
Jones, 29, has taught at Fairland for six years. Foley said he’s well-known by colleagues for his “innovative classroom practices” and ability to engage authentically with students.
Jones told Bethesda Beat his favorite thing about teaching is watching his students grow, both academically and as individuals. He said his approach to teaching emphasizes the need to bring curriculum to life and give lessons real-world applicability and significance in the eyes of students. He utilizes music, food, dance and other means to keep his students engaged.
“I believe in being different,” he said.
Montgomery County Public Schools Superintendent Monifa McKnight and Maryland’s Superintendent of Schools Mohammed Choudhury visited Fairland on Tuesday for the surprise presentation.
As an award recipient, Jones joins the Milken Educator Network, where he will have access to a variety of free resources — including personal mentorship opportunities and an invitation to attend a national educators’ forum in Los Angeles this spring.
When asked what advice he would give fellow elementary school teachers in Montgomery County, Jones told Bethesda Beat:
“Remember your passion. Remember your commitment to the students and families we serve. This job is not about us — it’s about our servanthood.”
Foley said one of the goals of the Milken Educator Award is to show students how much their teachers are valued by the community.
“Every successful person can remember a teacher who helped them,” she said. “When the kids go home tonight, we want them to tell their parents, ‘I’m going to be a teacher—just like Mr. Jones.’”