POLAND — When Jamie Karaffa entered the auditorium Tuesday afternoon at Bruce M. Whittier Middle School in Poland, she thought the school had gathered to celebrate her students’ National History Day projects.

Instead, Karaffa was presented with a Milken Educator Award and a $25,000 check in recognition of her extraordinary work as an educator, a surprise to all of the students and staff in attendance.

The eighth grade social studies teacher said she was blown away by the unexpected award. She received a deafening applause as she walked up to the front of the auditorium to accept the award from Milken Educator Awards Vice President Stephanie Bishop.

Karaffa never applied for the award; she was recommended to the Milken Family Foundation by the Maine Department of Education.

“We are looking for the top 1% of educators in our country, and we seek them out,” Bishop said. “Oftentimes, the reason why we have a whole confidential process and the educators can’t apply is because we find that great educators like Miss Karaffa would not apply because they’re unsung heroes, and they’re not willing to kind of sing their own praises.

“We go in and really seek and investigate to try to find the teachers who are really connecting with students and communities. And that’s what she exemplifies.”


Principal Shawn Vincent believes Karaffas’ extensive involvement within the middle school and at the state level made her stand out. He praised her attention to detail and the strong relationship she has with her students, adding that he has tremendous respect for her.

“Jamie’s work and recognition is a tremendous reflection of our school,” Vincent told attendees. “Bruce M. Whittier Middle School is no longer a hidden gem. The word is out there.”

Karaffa has helped develop district and state social studies curriculums, including hands-on online activities for students created during the pandemic. At the middle school, she also coaches soccer.

“I say yes a lot because, personally, I just really love to grow as an educator,” Karaffa said. “I was once taught you’re only as good as what you steal from others. And I always love that saying because that’s what we do, we share with each other and make each other better.”

Karaffa is especially proud to help organize the National History Day competition at the middle school. Each student at Bruce M. Whittier Middle School creates an original history project — an exhibit, a performance, a website, a documentary or a paper — for the event.

To her knowledge, it’s the only school in Maine in which every student participates in the competition.


At the assembly, it was announced that 30 students from the middle school would go on to compete at the state level, each vying for a chance to attend the national competition.

Last year, Karaffa earned a master’s degree in American history and government from Ashland University as a James Madison Fellow. The program, which provides financial and educational support for social studies teachers pursuing a master’s degree, is awarded to just one teacher in each state annually.

“I’ve always had a fascination with conflict,” she said. “I love learning about wars. I love learning why people do the things they do, the causes and effects of things.”

She credits her love of history to her parents, who took her to museums, battlefields and national parks as a child.

Maine Education Commissioner Pender Makin praised Karaffa for her work in a prepared statement, writing that she “makes history come alive for her students by creating immersive, project-based opportunities that build connections between the past and present day while also fostering the critical thinking and leadership skills needed to be engaged and empowered citizens.”

Two summers ago, Vincent was asked by an employee at the Department of Education to provide some information about Karaffa.


“‘She may be a candidate for an award eventually, and so, can you just tell us a little bit about her?'” he recalled from the inquiry.

He typed up some information and later shared the names of a few other people in the middle school who could speak to Karaffa’s work.

“I had no idea what award they were considering her for or, obviously, that there was a big financial prize attached to it,” Vincent said.

Potential award recipients are recommended by a state panel, then ultimately chosen by the Milken Family Foundation.

Karaffa was one of just two educators in Maine to receive the award; in total, 60 individuals will be presented with the award nationwide this year.

Hillary Hoyt, a third grade teacher at Leroy H. Smith School in Winterport, also received a Milken Educator Award Tuesday.

Based in California, the Milken Family Foundation has recognized more than 2,800 outstanding educators since its start in 1982. Recipients are heralded in early to mid-career for what they have achieved and for the promise of what they will accomplish.

Award recipients will travel to Los Angeles in June to attend the Milken Educator Awards Forum, where they will have the opportunity to network with other outstanding educators across the country.

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