Birmingham City Schools

Phillips Academy Teacher Wins Milken Award, Known as the ‘Oscar of Teaching’

A Birmingham teacher was given an award nicknamed the “Oscar of Teaching” during a surprise assembly at John Herbert Phillips Academy on Wednesday.

Korri Cunningham, IB coordinator for the school, was surrounded by cheering students, colleagues and dignitaries when she was surprised with the Milken Educator Award.

She said the award was “beyond anything I could ever imagine.”

“In teaching, the rewards aren’t always seen,” she said. “So to receive something of this magnitude, I can’t even begin to describe it. And it feels so good to really feel appreciated for all the hard work I put into the classroom.”

The award is presented to teachers, principals and specialists from around the country — usually in their early to mid-career years — for promoting excellence in education, for what they have achieved and for the promise of what they will accomplish, according to the Milken website.

It came with a $25,000 financial prize Cunningham can use however she chooses, along with mentorship opportunities.

Cunningham is the only Alabama recipient of the Milken this season and among up to 75 K-12 teachers across the country who will win the award this school year, as part of the Milken Family Foundation’s Journey to the 3,000th Milken Educator, according to the Milken statement.

“It is evident that Mrs. Korri Cunningham goes above and beyond what is required of her to empower students and help them reach their highest potential,” Alabama Superintendent of Education Eric G. Mackey said in a press release. “It’s teachers like Mrs. Cunningham who make a difference inside Alabama classrooms and throughout our communities.”

During the assembly, Cunningham thanked her coworkers and administrators at the school.

“You guys make me a better person,” she said.

Korri Cunningham calls to share the news about her Milken Educator Award with her daughter. (Source: Milken Family Foundation)

Cunningham began at Phillips Academy in 2015 as an ELA teacher, then became an instructional coach and in June was promoted to IB coordinator.

She said in her speech that she knew she wanted to be a teacher in kindergarten.

“I held onto that dream all throughout elementary school, middle school, high school,” she said, noting that she might have disappointed her mother, who thought she’d go straight into the Army.

The Milken Award traditionally is a surprise announcement, and Cunningham said Wednesday’s assembly certainly was; she thought it was being held for Mackey.

“My heart is so full right now,” she said after being told the award was for her.

Cunningham said she hopes the prize is a reminder for students of something she hopes they already know.

“I hope that the students know that they are able to do anything they put their mind to, no matter what it is.”