By Gina Stafford | Photos by Harrison McClary
Katie Picciuto is a nationally recognized teacher who says her college education both affirmed and expertly prepared her to achieve her lifelong dream of becoming a teacher.
Picciuto earned bachelor’s degrees in education and Spanish at UT Chattanooga in 2010, and seven years later, she was one of just 33 K-12 teachers from throughout the United States honored with a Milken Educator Award.
“I hadn’t heard of the award before,” says Picciuto, a teacher at Battle Academy in Chattanooga when she was honored in 2017. “Everyone had shown up for an assembly at school, and Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen also was there. We learned she was there to announce an award, and everybody assumed it was something for a veteran teacher.”
What McQueen announced instead was the presence of Jane Foley, senior vice president of the Milken Educator Awards. Foley then declared Picciuto a Milken winner.
“It was extremely exciting,” Picciuto says. “Winners become part of a network across the country, and now that I’ve won, I’m a part of that.”
Initiated in 1987, the Milken Educator Awards recognize up to 40 honorees across the country every year. Picciuto is a member of the 30th anniversary class, the only Tennessean in that group and one of just 68 Tennessee teachers honored in program history.
Dubbed the “Oscars of Teaching” by Teacher magazine, the Milken awards’ motto is: “The future belongs to the educated.” The program intends to ensure a future of educators by encouraging today’s promising teachers to return to the classroom tomorrow, Picciuto says.
“It’s a call to action to teachers who are new to the field, to compel them to stay with it,” she says, “and it’s to demonstrate that someone has noticed and appreciates your work.”
After seven years at Battle Academy, Picciuto today teaches at Mill Creek Elementary in Nolensville, about 20 miles south of Nashville, where her husband’s career took them in 2018.
“What’s most important to me about my UTC education is that it got me in the classroom early on,” Picciuto says. “I’ve always known I wanted to be a teacher, but I had a roommate who also was an education major but not because it had been a lifelong goal for her. She had just decided on teaching as a career, but she got in the classroom and learned it wasn’t for her. To find out late in your college education that teaching isn’t for you would be really unfortunate.
“I’m really glad the program got me in the classroom as early as it did—just to observe and for other exposure opportunities leading up to student teaching. When I got to the point of student teaching, and I’d been in the classroom multiple times before and much earlier, I realized how that prior exposure was really beneficial to me.”
Picciuto also praises UTC’s commitment to pairing students with teaching mentors.
“I had mentors carefully selected for me by UTC, and they were great,” she says. “They were Ms. (Jenny) Elliott, who taught first grade at McConnell Elementary (in Hixson), and Ms. (Michelle) Howell, who taught kindergarten at Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences. They were very patient and helpful to me and gave me good feedback about why they do certain things.”
And what about the Milken award—what has winning the recognition and its $25,000 cash prize meant to Picciuto? First, it meant participating in a conference for all the winners in the 2017 class; second, it meant she could afford to pursue her interest in a graduate degree.
“At the conference, a previous Milken winner—an Alabama school principal—was assigned as my mentor who would call once a month to talk about professional and personal goals and then held me accountable to those things,” Picciuto says.
“The cash prize made it possible for me to get a master’s degree, and my mentor was a resource in that, too, talking through expectations and reasons for going to graduate school.”
Today, almost 10 years into teaching, Picciuto is as sure she made the ideal career choice as she is of what she likes best about teaching.
“I love spending my day, every day, with kids all day long,” she says. “I like their curiosity and fresh perspective, especially with fifth graders who are just becoming aware of the world around them and forming opinions they can express.
“Every group of kids is different, and every year brings something different in what their interests are, in what will come easily to them and what is a struggle for them. Every year, what that will be is always new, and you get a new, blank slate, and you start over again.”