ECU alumna receives national award recognizing her excellence in teaching

East Carolina University alumna Ainsley VanBuskirk thought she was attending a typical school assembly at Greenville’s Pactolus Global School, where she teaches first grade. However, the assembly was called to award VanBuskirk with the National Milken Educator Award.

“I was completely shocked,” she said. “Once I realized what was happening, I felt so honored. Things like that don’t happen every day and I’ve never had anything remotely close to that happen to me.”

The National Milken Educator Award is a $25,000 prize that recognizes early-to-mid-career educators for the outstanding work they have done and will continue to do in the classroom. The awards, sometimes known as the Oscars of teaching, were created by Lowell Milken and the Milken Family Foundation to ensure that teachers were receiving the attention they deserve. Teachers are surprised at school assemblies and give a short acceptance speech sharing what this award and being an educator means to them.

As a dual language teacher, VanBuskirk collaborates internationally to support dual-language learners’ growth and proficiency. She also mentors new teachers and has helped create an environment of trust, empathy and mutual understanding in her classroom through development programs such as Reading Horizons and Multi-Tiered System of Supports.

“As our world continues to become more interconnected, Ms. VanBuskirk inspires the next generation of global learners and leaders through best practices and dual language instruction,” said Catherine Truitt, North Carolina superintendent of public instruction. “As a facilitating teacher at Pactolus, she helps support bilingual literacy instruction to increase students’ growth and proficiency with some of the youngest learners in our state. The skills Ms. VanBuskirk fosters in her classroom set her students up for success in their journey.”

Being able to teach in the dual language program had a significant impact on VanBuskirk’s career and shifted her mindset on education as a whole.

“Being able to learn from teachers with experience in educational systems all around the world was and continues to be an amazing opportunity,” she said. “Working with these amazing educators helped me truly understand different perspectives and the importance of global mindedness.”

According to VanBuskirk, she has always been a helper, and her experiences helping her younger siblings with homework and parents with projects set her on her journey to becoming an educator.

“My passion for helping others led me to initially major in nursing,” she said. “I specifically aspired to become a neonatal or pediatric nurse. I came to a point in my college journey where I decided I wanted to pursue something different. Though my interest in nursing changed, my passion for working with children remained.”

VanBuskirk received her associate of arts from Pitt Community College in 2011 and her Bachelor of Science in elementary education from ECU in 2013.

Ainsley VanBuskirk, fourth from left, poses with officials from Pitt County Schools, North Carolina Department of Public Instruction and Milken Educator Awards representatives after receiving the National Milken Educator Award. (Video & Photo by the Milken Family Foundation)

“ECU does a great job in helping prepare teachers for education. I believe ECU’s College of Education is one of the best. It allowed us to get experience in the classroom with practicum placements and internship. We had the opportunity to create lesson plans and get feedback from professors. One of the best courses in my opinion was Classroom Organization and Management in Elementary School. It really helped me think of all the details and strategies that could be utilized in the classroom.”

Her advice to future teachers is to be a lifelong learner and use all the knowledge you gain to better the lives of your students. Creating connections and networks with students, colleagues, parents and the community is also key to being a successful teacher.

There are no limits to how recipients can use the $25,000 cash prize. VanBuskirk is planning to use the money to better her family’s future.

“I recently had my son, and my husband and I spoke about starting up an account for him,” she said. “I’d like to use some of the money towards obtaining my master’s degree so I can continue to grow. I’d also like to save some and use toward a new home.”

In addition to the monetary reward, VanBuskirk will join a network of nearly 3,000 Milken Educator awardees and will benefit from the mentoring program offered through the network. She will also attend the all-expenses-paid summer Milken Educator Awards Forum in Los Angeles to network with other winners.