FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
What makes a great teacher? Someone who pushes their class hard or someone who lends an ear during times of trouble?
Sakhalin Finnie does both. She teaches ninth grade science at Harbor Teacher Preparation Academy in Wilmington, California, and she has just won something akin to the Super Bowl of teaching. It's called a Milken National Educator Award, and with it comes a hefty prize.
Sakhalin Finnie, welcome to NEWS & NOTES.
Ms. SAKHALIN FINNIE (Teacher, Harbor Teacher Preparation Academy, Wilmington, California; Winner, 2007 Milken National Educator Award): Hello.
CHIDEYA: So, congratulations.
Ms. FINNIE: Thank you.
CHIDEYA: There's a picture of you taken on the day you won and you're just looking completely struck. What was going through your mind at the moment?
Ms. FINNIE: I couldn't believe it was me. I was standing there, thinking, they called my name. Oh, my god, they called my name. And I was crying. I was crying. So I was shocked.
CHIDEYA: What is the best part for you about teaching? And tell me about your students?
Ms. FINNIE: My students are a mixture of Latino and African-American, Asian, European, Native American. And the best part about teaching is when they make me laugh. I mean, really. And when, at the end of the year in June, a kid who didn't get it or doesn't like science and they tell you they hate science, at the end, Ms. Finnie, you know what, I like your class. Or the next year they come back and, I want to be back in your class. I learned this or I learned that or they walk in; they're excited. That makes my whole day. That makes my whole day.
CHIDEYA: What's your favorite part of science, I mean, as a subject - astronomy, biology - what do you like the best?
Ms. FINNIE: Chemistry.
Ms. FINNIE: I am a chemistry major through and through. I get all excited, jumping all around the room. The kids look at me kind of funny, and they don't understand why I like it so much, but I love chemistry. I really do.
CHIDEYA: Now, you got $25,000 to spend as you please. What do you please?
Ms. FINNIE: I do not know yet. I'm going to pay my tithes, and then I'm going to sit it in the bank for awhile. I'm not sure what I'm going to do next. I really don't know.
CHIDEYA: A lot of really good teachers spend some of their own money in addition to their own time.
Ms. FINNIE: Mm-hmm.
CHIDEYA: Do you ever find yourself taking things out of pocket in order to provide opportunities for your students?
Ms. FINNIE: Every year. Every year, you - I mean, renting a car, take the basketball team to the game or maybe someone's hungry. Some kids don't always have food when they get home, so I keep food in my room. Sometimes, I run out of supplies that I go to Radio Shack and get or maybe we don't have enough supplies that day. There was one year where we were - we didn't have enough paper in the school, so I bought my own paper. Sometimes you don't have ink cartridges. So you do what you can to get your labs done.
CHIDEYA: Now, tell me about the Minority University Math, Science and Technology Award.
Ms. FINNIE: That program was started by NASA. It's a partnership with Cal. State L.A. and LAUSD. NASA agrees to train science teachers - elementary and secondary - to be - to teach science correctly, to encourage students to become science majors. And they stay with the students from the elementary school to high school. And then, in college, there's also a branch in college that we can hook them up with and they give them scholarships. And the whole idea for us is to take us through their teaching program, so that we teach it correctly. And we have very, very high standards. They teach you that you have to be three times - you have to work three times as hard in an urban school. And they expect you to do that and teach science with no books.
CHIDEYA: Very briefly, give me the name of one of the teachers who inspired you.
Ms. FINNIE: Ms. Crook(ph). Ms. Crook. She was my English teacher when I was at Banning High School.
CHIDEYA: All right. Well, I'm sure Ms. Crook and her family are thrilled by that. And, Ms. Finnie, thanks a lot.
Ms. FINNIE: You're welcome. You have a good day.
Sakhalin Finnie teaches ninth grade science at Harbor Teacher Preparation Academy in Wilmington, California. She recently won a Milken National Educator Award, and she joined me here at our NPR West studios.
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