It takes a special kind of educator to win the coveted Golden Apple Award. For this Harlem teacher-turned-technology specialist, there are many ways to share her passion.
Last spring, educator Ashley Milnes – then VanSickle – discovered her family was capable of lying to her when they showed up, along with Golden Apple representatives and local media, in her Harlem Middle School classroom to present her with a 2022 Golden Apple Award.
The 20 finalists knew the day when winners would be announced, but not the time. Family, administrators and fellow teachers were in on the well-coordinated surprise.
“I’m shocked that they could keep a secret,” Milnes says of the nerve-wracking day. “When you find out about the first winner, little whispers go around. So, in your mind you think, ‘OK, there’s one down of five,’ and then you hear two down and three down and then you start worrying.”
Perhaps her biggest surprise was that her now-husband – at that point her fiance – was able to keep the secret. “When it came time to actually propose to me, he completely blew that surprise for himself and just did it. But he was able to coordinate all of the Golden Apple stuff and keep it a secret,” she says.
Milnes initially kept the award in her seventh-grade social studies classroom, but she recently changed positions within the district, so for now it’s on the mantle at home. “Eventually, it will come back to my office,” she says.
Milnes earned her bachelor’s degree at Northern Illinois University, which is also where she began studying for her first master’s degree – in educational administration – before transferring to Ball State so she could complete it via their online program while living and working in Germany.
Milnes recently completed a second master’s degree, this one in instructional technology. Currently in her ninth year at the district, she’s traded in her own classroom to become an instructional technology specialist for the Harlem Consolidated School District, and she now works in four elementary schools and Harlem High School.
“As an instructional technology coach, I get to support teachers in implementing and planning different technology, lessons and curriculum, and then I actually get to teach their classes some of those technology skills, or how to use those tech tools to model them in their classrooms. Maybe it’s something that they want to learn more about, if they don’t have the experience, or they just want to see it in action.”
It’s not the first time Milnes has done this type of teaching.
“I taught abroad for a year on a military base in Germany, where I did this position,” she says. “So, when the opportunity presented itself to do that, again, for Harlem – because I like technology and was getting my master’s in it – it just seemed like a good time to try something new and make that switch.”
By no means was she burned out in the classroom, Milnes says. It’s just that opportunity presented itself.
“I loved what I did. I loved my students,” she says. “Middle school isn’t for everybody, but I really love that age group because they get humor, they get sarcasm, and you can build those important relationships, especially at that age.”
She realized she could have a bigger impact on students by educating both teachers and students about the district’s technology initiatives.
“In this position, I’m able to get some of those exciting tools out to more teachers who then in turn can get them out to more students, so the impact is exponential,” she says.
Milnes’ passion for education has come full circle, considering it stems from her time as a student in the Harlem District.
“I had such great teachers in the district who really inspired me to push myself to go after my dreams,” Milnes says. “Having those teachers who pushed me to do what I love every day is really why I went into teaching.”
Several of her former teachers were still working in the district when she was hired nine years ago.
“At the middle school, I actually had one of my seventh-grade social studies teachers on my social studies team. It was really cool to be a teammate with someone who had taught me – and I loved her class.”
Being able to impart skills and knowledge while building connections with students inspires Milnes to do her best, every day, with every student.
“Whether that’s in the classroom, or now around the district, supporting students and making learning fun is what I love to do,” she says. “Another thing that really inspires me is my colleagues and my friends in the profession, whether that’s at Harlem or in other districts. They continue to inspire me to push myself to try new things, and we bounce ideas off each other. Now that I have the opportunity to travel around my district, I get to see amazing experiences at the elementary level, the middle school level, and the high school level. It’s really a unique position to be in.”
Dividing her time between five schools requires considerable time management, but Milnes believes it’s worth it, as she works with fellow educators to ensure they have – and understand how to use – newer technology to help their students.
“Making sure we communicate with parents about what’s going on technology-wise, as technology changes constantly, is important,” she adds. “We’re building those partnerships with parents to educate them on what we have available with technology, but then also showing them how they can support their students at home with some of those technology skills.”
Aware that not every family has internet access at home, the Harlem District is proactively trying to bridge that digital divide.
“COVID really pushed that into the forefront of everyone’s minds,” Milnes says. “At Harlem, every student has a Chromebook at school that is available for them to use. Middle school and high school students are able to take their device home with them every night. There are features on the Chromebooks for students who don’t have internet access. Even without the internet they can use certain features, like typing an essay.”
She notes that the district is good about letting families know about free- or low-cost internet services on the market, but it’s still an issue
“One of the ways that we’ve started to combat that a little bit is that we have been teaching kids how to use apps like Google on different devices,” she says. “They may not have internet access to use all the features on a Chromebook at home, but if they have a smartphone, we can show them ways they can download the apps on the phone and use it that way, too.”
Milnes’ goals as an educator may have shifted a bit, but her focus remains on students and encouraging them to succeed.
“They have changed over time, as I’ve changed roles and gone from elementary to middle school to now the technology specialist job,” she says. “But I think ultimately as a teacher, students’ success is always going to be my priority. I like to focus on never, never stopping my learning process and never being afraid to take risks or try new things.
“I expect my students to try new things in their learning, to try new technology, and to be willing to take those risks themselves,” she continues. “I have to always be flexible enough and willing enough to try those adventures myself.”
Milnes considers her Golden Apple Award to be as much for her students as for herself.
“They felt like winners, too,” she says. “Being a part of a community that celebrates education and celebrates students is huge. Anything we can do to uplift teachers, uplift the profession, and spark that interest in the field is amazing.”