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Rising Star of Texas

What the Oscar is to film, the Grammy is to music, or the Nobel Prize is to science, the Milken Educator Award is to teaching. And, unlike most teacher recognition programs, the Milken Educator Award has no formal nomination or application process. Instead, candidates are sourced through a confidential selection process and then reviewed by blue ribbon panels appointed by state departments of education. Those most exceptional are recommended for the award, with final approval by the Milken Family Foundation. To be chosen is truly an honor.

For Amber Simpson (’99 Curriculum and Instruction alumna), that honor tripled when she learned that apart from being named a recipient and earning a $25,000 prize, she was also the first winner from her district, the sole Texan to receive the honor for the 2016-17 season, and among only 33 honorees nationwide.  

Ironically though, Simpson had initially rejected the idea of becoming a teacher. 

“Both of my parents were educators, and I saw the hard work they put in every day with very little pay,” said Simpson. “I was determined to do something different and decided I was going to go into meteorology. Throughout high school I babysat for friends and family. I volunteered at the elementary school in Lytle and always enjoyed it. I was a substitute in college and realized that I really loved children and was meant to be a teacher. Shortly after beginning my college career I changed my major to education. I have never looked back.” 

Barrera Veterans Elementary, the school Simpson works at, is a rural school that serves a predominantly high-poverty Latino population. To improve educator instruction and student achievement, it has been implementing TAP: The System for Teacher and Student Advancement through its partnership with the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching. As a TAP master teacher, Simpson is a vital part of the school’s TAP leadership team, sharing duties with the administrators and fellow master and mentor teachers.

In her role, Simpson works with pre-kindergarten through fourth-grade teachers. She helps facilitate weekly professional development meetings, observes educators in the classroom, models and tests new instructional techniques, introduces curriculum and assesses students’ learning along the way. Beyond the school, Simpson serves on several district curriculum committees and mentors new TAP master teachers in the district.

Well-known in the community and respected by parents, Simpson provides one-on-one tutoring for students, with whom she develops long-term relationships. She motivates students to excel in school, encourages them to plan for college and attends their graduation ceremonies. Simpson’s former students return often to Barrera to share their successes with her.

“Amber Simpson is an exemplary leader and mentor who works every day to ensure a quality educational opportunity for Barrera Veterans Elementary students,” said Lowell Milken, chairman and co-founder of the Milken Family Foundation. “I commend Amber for her commitment and thank her for choosing teaching as a career.” The Milken Educator Award targets early-to-mid career education professionals for their already impressive achievement and, more significantly, for the promise of what they will accomplish in the future. As Simpson continues to excel, she knows how difficult and gratifying teaching can be, and offers honest advice for soon-to-be educators. 

“Teaching is one of the hardest, and yet most rewarding, professions,” said Simpson. “It can be mentally, physically, and emotionally draining, but your students need you. It’s normal to go through ups and downs — remember why you chose the profession when you begin to lose your passion. Always do what’s right for kids and never give up. Teachers make a difference — be a positive difference.”