skip navigation | accessibility
The Kennedy Center

The Kennedy Center/Stephen Sondheim Inspirational Teacher Awards

The annual Kennedy Center/Stephen Sondheim Inspirational Teacher Awards publicly recognize specific teachers by spotlighting their extraordinary impact on the lives of students. The Awards celebrate the teaching profession, the important role of teachers in society, and seek to inspire others to pursue this noble profession. Nominated by students they once taught, these former students' stories exemplify the power one teacher has to inspire others and transform lives.

2017 Awardees

Evangeline Blazakis (Posthumous)

"Lil loved literature and people, especially young people. For her, there was really no other career choice but teaching. She found great joy in introducing her students to classical and contemporary authors. She was thrilled when her book selections transformed a reluctant learner into an enthusiastic reader. To Lil, life's most profound lessons were to be found, discussed, and hopefully absorbed through literature." – Jeri Wilson

Mary Valentine

Nominated by Mary Valentine

"Amid a mundane conversation about family, Lil said, 'My brother, he has always been straight as an arrow and I've been, well, never really straight.' I froze, did I hear that right? I awkwardly gathered my things and left the office fumbling over this new information. No one had ever come out to me before. I came out a year later in college. Lil's support was essential."


Adam Burns

Adam Burns

"I became a teacher for those five moments of promise each day – the start of each class, when I could close the door and help students find their voice, their narrative, their story – where someone's life could change, whether it be for an hour or for the rest of it."

Griffin Olis

Nominated by Griffin Olis

"The greatest thing about Mr. Burns was that his belief in me was total. I always felt that I had talent as a filmmaker, but he helped me take that talent and turn it into work that impacts the world."


Suzanne Dukes

"My decision to become a teacher was influenced by my parents who instilled in me a love of learning. That, and my love of sports, led me to Physical Education and the opportunity to set a positive example for students and help them educationally and socially become successful, productive citizens."

Sheila Jones

Nominated by Sheila Jones

"I was the goalie. Within a few minutes, I blocked a shot, then another, and another. At that point, two girls on the other team threatened me, saying they would beat me up if I blocked one more shot. It happened. I blocked the next shot, and they ran directly at me, knocking me down. Not only did Ms. Dukes stop the bullying, she taught the entire class a lesson about working together. Kids who had conflict would become teammates, working toward a common goal."


Norma Freeman

"When I was eight, my mom made me watch Leonard Bernstein's Young People's Concerts on TV. I whined, pouted, and tried to look disinterested when really I was spellbound! Something clicked, and I knew I wanted to teach music. Later I realized the beauty, creativity, skills, worldliness, and community of music should be a part of our lives, and I had to share this with others. Thanks, Mom!"

William Martinez

Nominated by William Martinez

"She gave me an opportunity to sing a solo during a presentation for our parents. I told her, that being deaf, my mom would not be able to enjoy it and would feel left out surrounded by all the parents who could hear their children sing. So I declined. Instead of choosing another student, Mrs. Freeman came up with a brilliant idea: 'How about you sing and SIGN your song?'"


Tara Hefner

"I teach to reach the student who dreads coming to school, the student who finds it challenging to learn, and be successful, and the student who has no other support system in place. I teach to inspire, to be an advocate, and above all, I teach to make a difference."

Jeimy Alfaro

Nominated by Jeimy Alfaro

"I started school only knowing the words, 'No English,' and that became my response to everyone that spoke to me. I thought about giving up, quitting school and finding a job to help support my family, more times than I can count. Then I walked into Mrs. Hefner's classroom."


Susanna McPhilomy

"I chose be an educator because I love working with people and watching them flourish professionally and personally. Language acquisition transcends traditional curriculum and instructional methods. It becomes a cultural and interpersonal journey that I am honored to be a part of with each and every one of my students."

Kenneth Da Silva

Nominated by Kenneth Da Silva

"Although I couldn't elaborate responses to her questions in the moment, she continued to insist that I, "'talk, talk, and keep talking! The more you do it the better you'll get…and remember, if somebody can do it, you can do it!'"


Michael Mills

"I chose education because I was blessed to have had many inspirational teachers, and I felt a strong desire to be the same by being a positive impact in the lives of young people. I loved mathematics and sports, and I wanted to share my enthusiasm for these with kids."

Shannon Houtrouw

Nominated by Shannon Houtrouw

"The first workout was a shock. Halfway into it I dropped out and went home. Mills called me, concerned that I did not return. Too chicken to tell him I'd quit after one practice, I assured him I wouldn't make that mistake again. Practices were grueling. My will to continue was tested daily. However, a combination of events would steel my resolve and ingratiate me to Mills forever."


Iris Rinke-Hammer

"Growing up in a family of emotional turmoil, school was like a refuge for me where we could think, express our ideas and not be judged. This is the kind of place I try to create in my classroom so students can access their multifaceted knowledge, find their voices, and know they are heard."

Adriane Tharp

Nominated by Adriane Tharp

"She began classes with ten-minute meditations. We students sat on the rug, closed our eyes, and obeyed. Rinke-Hammer whispered, 'Imagine you are an animal. How do you walk? What noises do you make? Why do you behave this way?' I felt myself slip out of my awkward skin and become something else."


Dale Shields

"My work as a teacher, acting coach, or workshop leader has always focused on the student as an individual. Every activity, movement, space, and word is an arena of knowledge. I did not choose teaching. Teaching chose me. 'Your opinion matters here,' I tell them in whatever role I occupy. My mantra as a teacher is: 'Find your own voice.' Motivating those new voices is why I teach."

Nicole Brinkmann Reeves

Nominated by Nicole Brinkmann Reeves

"Dale believed that we each had something deep, rich, and valuable to bring to the life of our characters and that it was this same voice that gave certain vitality to our own lives. He believes that we each have something to contribute to the world."


Alice Duncan Thompson

Alice Duncan Thompson

"I believe that the seed of greatness inhabits the soul of every student. Therefore, my daily challenge as an educator is to identify and nurture that seed with kindness, respect, and effective instruction. I see giant oaks who will transform the world with goodness, grace, and life-long learning."

Jerry Ivery

Nominated by Jerry Ivery

"Bold and untethered by constructs which ruled libraries in the last millennium, stepping into the library with Ms. Duncan Thompson is like entering the magic school bus with Ms. Frizzle. There is a pure exuberance and energy that radiates from her like sunshine. With a loud voice and personality, bright as a 200 kilowatt lamp, her presence lights up a room."


See what leaders and celebrities have to say about the impact their favorite teachers had on them and the impact good teachers make on students, schools, and communities. With the following links: