Science teacher Robert Baxter, believing he was going to a school assembly where it would be announced that Buffalo Westminster Community Charter School won a grant, instead learned he won $25,000 from the Milken Family Foundation for being an outstanding teacher.
Fighting back tears, he tried to contain his emotion with a joke to his students.
"See, I told you this where the money is, math and science!"
Baxter, a member of the Buffalo Teachers Federation (led by Philip Rumore), told the crowd what he tells his students frequently: "I don't have to be here...this is my choice. Every time I come in through that door it's because I want to be here."
Lowell Milken presented the award on behalf of the Milken Family Foundation, which seeks out outstanding teachers around the country and surprises them with unrestricted awards of $25,000.
"I believe teachers and principals have the most important job in the country," he said to the crowd after flying to Buffalo Tuesday from the Albany airport, where he had earlier in the day presented an award to Heather O'Leary of the Schenectady Federation of Teachers.
Later, Milken told Baxter "What you're doing in the sciences is so important."
Baxter said a big part of his teaching is building relationships with students. He takes them on a yearly 3-4 day camping trip for pond studies, along with day trips to science-related exhibits at colleges around the city.
He said he goes beyond the normal eighth grade curriculum, which includes integrated science: life, physical and earth. At the end of the year they take the New York State intermediate level science test. Last year, he said he "got adventurous" and had all the students take the exam for Regents biology, which he teaches to his advanced students, and reports that 66% of the students passed it despite it being one-two years beyond their class level.
"It's hard being a teacher," Baxter said. "When they come back and say what you meant to them, when they come and see me, it's more than worth it."
Baxter, a graduate of SUNY at Buffalo State College with both his undergraduate and master's degrees, is married to Vicki Baxter, an integrated co-teacher of special education in the same school.
"Our heads are spinning," said Vicki. The couple have four daughters, and the eldest is in college earning her graduate degree in elementary education, Vicki Baxter said proudly.
All 60 winners --- many not yet announced -- of the Milken Educator Awards this school year will convene in Los Angeles in April for workshops and receipt of their actual checks, Baxter said. The Milken Foundation pursues intiatives in education and medical research.
Although the news is still fresh, Robert and Vicki Baxter think they might know what they want to do with their money: start a cosmetology/barber school for kids age 17 and up in the city of Buffalo.
"A lot of vocational programs no longer exist within the city," he said. Add to that the number of students who "fell through the cracks" and did not make it through high school, and Baxter believes he will have a base for his dreamed-of school.