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'A changemaker in education:' Armour native Bowman earns 2021-22 Milken Educator Award

T.F. Riggs teacher one of 60 nationwide to receive honor

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South Dakota Secretary of Education Tiffany Sanderson, right, congratulates Nichole Bowman on her Milken Educator Award as T.F. Riggs High School Principal Kevin Mutchelknaus looks on.
Milken Family Foundation Photo
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PIERRE — It was supposed to be a normal assembly at T.F. Riggs High School in Pierre.

That’s what Nichole Bowman, a math teacher for grades 9-12 at the school, thought when she headed for the auditorium Tuesday, where she expected the South Dakota Secretary of Education to be on hand to congratulate the district on its work developing a community service program.

But it was more special than that.

“I was aware of an assembly, but they told me that the secretary of education was coming to thank Pierre for doing a community service project that we had implemented,” Bowman told the Mitchell Republic. “I saw the cameras there, which I thought was a bit weird, but then I saw the governor had come, so I figured that was why they were there.”

They were actually there for Bowman herself, who was surprised to learn that the assembly was to recognize her being named a recipient of the Milken Educator Award. Students, staff, administrators and state officials were all on hand to share in the moment.

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The Milken Educator Award was established to inspire and uplift with unique stories of educators making a profound difference for their students, colleagues and communities, according to a description from the Milken Foundation. Recipients are heralded from early to mid-career for what they have achieved and for the promise of what they will accomplish given the resources and opportunities inherent in the award.

The focus of the assembly immediately turned to a very surprised Bowman.

“It was surprising,” Bowman said with a laugh.

The award is not given out by a typical nomination process. Recipients are found by word-of-mouth, and the foundation that administers the award does its own research on each individual candidate. That research can sometimes stretch to as long as two years.

As part of the award, Bowman will receive a $25,000 cash prize that she can use in whatever manner she wants. Also included is a chance to work with the approximately 60 other Milken Educator Award winners from around the country to share ideas, challenges and classroom techniques that can help improve the educational experience of their students.

Bowman, a native of Armour who graduated high school in 2003, said she didn’t always have a clear idea of what she wanted to do for a career. As the youngest of six siblings, however, she had developed a knack for helping younger people learn new concepts.

A teacher, Larry Hornstra, also made a particular impression on her school days, she said.

“I didn’t really have a passion for anything, but I knew I liked school a lot and I had a teacher that made a huge impact on me during high school,” Bowman said.

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Nichole Bowman gets some help with her oversized Milken Educator Award check from colleagues and visiting dignitaries. The $25,000 cash award is unrestricted, meaning the teacher can use the money however she likes. From left, T.F. Riggs High School Principal Kevin Mutchelknaus; Milken Educator Awards Senior Program Director Greg Gallagher; recipient Nichole Bowman; South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem; and South Dakota Secretary of Education Tiffany Sanderson.
Milken Family Foundation Photo

She moved on to Northern State University in Aberdeen, where she braved cold temperatures but graduated with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics in 2007. From there she held teaching positions in Rapid City and Kimball before eventually finding her way to Pierre with her family.

Having recently moved from Georgia Morse Middle School in Pierre to T.F. Riggs High School, Bowman said she has really enjoyed seeing some of her middle school students back in her high school classroom, where they can reconnect and continue their learning experience.

“Right now I’m enjoying having my students back in class. I saw them starting in 6th and 7th and 8th grade, and now coming to Riggs I have some juniors and seniors I had as 8th graders,” Bowman said. “I love getting them back, and I think they like getting me back, too.”

The Milken Foundation saw a great deal worth celebrating in Bowman’s career. According to her award biography, Bowman embraces a growth mindset, celebrating learning from mistakes and navigating learning curves to push every student to perform at higher levels.

Students come to Bowman’s classroom with widely varying abilities, so she invests significant time and energy in differentiation, using personalized and small-group instruction to move students through the curriculum at their own pace.

During the pandemic, Bowman welcomed algebra students to her online platform, answering questions via email and Zoom. Bowman’s strategies have delivered remarkable results: At her previous school, nearly half of Bowman’s eighth graders scored at an advanced level on the statewide assessment in math.

While she and her family don’t have any particular plans for the $25,000 award, she is looking forward to working with her fellow award winners and the state Department of Education to collaborate on education issues. A trip to Los Angeles is planned for June, where the winners will congregate, and the South Dakota Department of Education has reached out to work with her again.

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Surrounded by cameras and microphones, Nichole Bowman talks with reporters at her surprise Milken Educator Award notification.
Milken Family Foundation Photo

“I’m looking forward to expanding what I think is some good knowledge to help other educators help their students find success,” Bowman said. “I’m excited about networking and being able to communicate. What are you doing on the east coast or the west coast or down south, and then bring back those ideas to our district and our state. We really are each other’s best teachers, we just need to find a way to learn from each other.”

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Miken Awards Senior Program Director Greg Gallagher presented Bowman with the recognition.

“Nichole Bowman is a changemaker in education,” Gallagher said. “She not only takes a purposeful interest in meeting students where they are, but also extends her impact beyond the walls of Riggs High School. By mentoring teachers, propagating best practices and developing strategies for the needs of an evolving student population, everyone benefits.”

Tiffany Sanderson, Secretary of Education for South Dakota, agreed that the award was well-earned.

“Nichole works hard to meet each student exactly where they are so they can learn. She’s been very successful as a math teacher,” Sanderson said. “She also regularly seeks out leadership opportunities, including helping to lead implementation of our state’s math standards. She helps grow the profession by mentoring new teachers, and she is always there for students — whether serving as an advisor or attending students’ activities to cheer them on.”

Bowman, 37, said she has no thoughts of slowing down anytime soon. Her work in the classroom keeps her busy and focused, but she also takes time to enhance the school experience for her students in other ways, like taking on officiating duties for volleyball and basketball games.

“You do not do that without a thick skin,” Bowman said with a laugh.

For the foreseeable future, Bowman will continue to put students in her classroom first, a mantra she has held strong since she began her teaching days. And while she did not get into teaching for the awards or recognition, she said young people considering a career in education should know that the career road can be challenging, but infinitely rewarding.

You might be surprised what you accomplish, she said.

“In those first four years in Rapid City I had seen a colleague get this exact same award. I knew her and she was great, but I thought there’s no way that will ever be me,” Bowman said. “And here I am. I look back and see there are many things I should have done differently, but I took those things I knew I could have done better and took my constructive criticism from colleagues and found ways to make it better.”

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Nichole Bowman gets emotional after being named the recipient of her Milken Educator Award.
Milken Family Foundation Photo

Find your strengths and build them, she said.

“That’s my best advice. Work with your strengths, be open to criticism, and if none of it applies, throw it away and find something that does,” Bowman said. “Continue to get better. And remember it’s always about the kids before your colleagues, friends and administrators.”

Related Topics: PIERREKIMBALLEDUCATION
Erik Kaufman joined the Mitchell Republic in July of 2019 as an education and features reporter. He grew up in Freeman, S.D., graduating from Freeman High School. He graduated from the University of South Dakota in 1999 with a major in English and a minor in computer science. He can be reached at ekaufman@mitchellrepublic.com.
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