Secaucus math teacher wins $25,000 Milken educator award

SECAUCUS, N.J. — The whole school was called to a surprise assembly Tuesday morning at Secaucus Middle School to unveil a secret award for a beloved math teacher at the school, who is known for singing songs with students to help them remember how to solve math problems.

Toni Ann Palmisano has been teaching for nine years. Her students’ test scores have risen every year since she began.

“She’s a good teacher, but she also makes it fun,” said Cassie Mayer, one of Palmisano’s 7th grade students. "It’s just really easy to be in her class."

The Milken Educator Award comes with a $25,000 cash prize that can be spent in anyway the recipient sees fit. Only 44 awards were given out this year across the U.S. Two of them were in New Jersey.

We followed Palmisano into her classroom after the assembly to see what makes her teaching-style so special.

“It’s easy as 1, 2, 3. As simple as keep the first, change to add. Change the sign of the second one, yeah!” students sang to the melody of The Jackson 5’s ‘ABC’ song.

“We play a lot of games sometimes with her to try and understand stuff,” said Kismet Jones, a 7th grade student.

Palmisano is also a popular teacher outside of the classroom. She heads the yearbook and student government clubs. Students say she recently organized a dance-a-thon to raise money for school programs.

“I do what I do because I love every single moment of it,” she told the audience of educators and students upon receiving her award. "I don’t even feel like I work a day in my life. And I mean that.”

The Milken Educator Awards have been presented for 30 years to stand-out educators from across the country. The non-profit’s selection process is entirely secret and no teacher knows they are even being considered. The goal is to highlight excellence in the classroom the same way athletes and actors are rewarded for their talents. Milken Awards are often lauded as “The Oscars” of education.

Palmisano says the honor took her by complete surprise. She literally jumped up and down upon receipt.

“I had no clue,” she said.

As for her unique impact on students, she could not put into words what it is that makes her classroom so special.

“We learn everyday - every single day. And it’s just - I take away the book, kind of. I’m up and the board and we’re just doing our thing. I can’t really explain it,” she said.

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