Ashli Knoell, a 2010 University of New Mexico College of Education and Human Sciences graduate, was among 75 other teachers nationally selected recently to receive the 2023 Milken Educator Award.

Knoell earned a B.S. in elementary education at UNM and is currently a S.T.E.A.M. (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math) and Robotics teacher at Cleveland High School in Rio Rancho, N.M.

Ashli Knoell receives 2023 Milken Educator Award.
Ashli Knoell receives 2023 Milken Educator Award. Photo credit: Milken Family Foundation

Often hailed as the “Oscars of Teaching,” The Milken Award acknowledges all her “outstanding contributions to her classroom, Cleveland High School, and the greater Rio Rancho community,” said Jane Foley, a Milken Educator Award recipient from Indiana in 1994.

In this epic nationwide event, early to mid-career awardees are recognized for their exceptional educational talent, long-range potential for professional and policy leadership, and being a motivational and impactful presence in the lives of their students, colleagues, and community.

The Award comes with an unrestricted $25,000 cash prize that Knoell can use for any purpose. Some instructors have used the funds to further their children’s or their continuing education, for field trips, or scholarships. Along with the financial prize, recipients will join the national Milken Educator Network, a growing group of 3,000 educator professionals across diverse roles and disciplines working to shape the future of education. The Awards were created in 1987 by Lowell Milken, philanthropist and education visionary.

In 2024, the Milken Educator Award will have $144 million invested in the national network overall. It empowers recipients to “Celebrate, Elevate, and Activate” the K-12 profession to inspire young, capable people to pursue teaching as a career. There are no nominations and no applications!

Knoell was senseless when she was first beckoned off of the Cleveland bleachers to accept her award in front of a gym that echoed with student and colleague cheers and applause. It took her a moment to realize her name was called.

“At first, I thought maybe they made a mistake,” Knoell admitted until one of her best friends and colleagues got her attention long enough to usher her off the bleachers.

Knoell confessed that upon announcing the award, she was eying the room for all the worthy prospects of educators who she felt were just as deserving of the award as herself. She hadn’t even considered that she would be nominated. This party comes from the fact that Knoell recognizes that teaching - being an effective teacher - is not a one-human job.

Obtaining her education degree at UNM gave her career the foundation it needed. While at UNM, she was immersed in varying opportunities that exposed her to what it meant to be a teacher.

“My first classroom observation, I taught the lesson. I walked in, and the teacher handed me her chalk - she was old school and still had the green chalkboard. She told me, ‘teach’. I did just that,” she recalled. “At that moment, I knew I had found my niche. I know not every college of education has this opportunity.”

Moreover, Knoell's rare opportunities as a student at UNM exposed her to the true nature of teaching.

“I have learned that it takes a village of invested, caring individuals to create a culture of learning and foster student growth and success. I am blessed to work with some of the most amazing educators in our state.”

Knoell was so shocked by the surrealness of the moment that she recalls trembling, with no control over the tremors. In her speech in that gymnasium, she reminded her students of their value in her classroom and the world.

“I teach because I want my son to grow up in an amazing world. I teach for the future,” she explained. " Each of these humans, regardless of whether or not they think so, has a purpose, and they matter, and they can be successful and change our world. Students are my ‘why’.”

None of Knoell’s students are foreign to the impact she has on them and their futures. That’s Knoell’s goal:

“The most important thing I do to support all my student learners begins with respect and creating a safe space where learning can occur. If a student does not feel safe, valued, or respected, exploration and creativity are diminished and cease to exist. All humans are welcome in my classroom,” she said.

She ensures her students know this from the moment they first walk through her classroom door.

Her compassion and hope for her students rub off on them. One of many of her senior students, Marcella Eagletail, was in attendance for Knoell’s award ceremony. She has had a long history of walking in Knoell’s footsteps, which is why Eagletail is striving to become a teacher.

“I think it should be recognized how hard it is to be a teacher,” Eagletail acknowledged. “And she’s been doing this for so long. She deserves this. […] She already knows how I feel; she’s my everything! She’s helped me so much… She deserves this and the world.”

When asked what she planned to do with her award money, Knoell spoke of putting some of the funds in savings and the rest back into her classroom. The opportunities are endless, and Cleveland High School will surely reap the benefits of Knoell’s dedication to teaching.