Milken Educator Award comes to Irmo, surprises local teacher with $25,000 award

April 7, 2022

Lesley Snyder Uses “Passion Projects” to Inspire Students’ Education

Oprah Winfrey congratulates Milken Educators in heartwarming video message as ‘light in this world’

 In a surprise assembly earlier today, Lesley Snyder, an eighth grade English teacher at Dutch Fork Middle School, received a $25,000 Milken Educator Award for her work encouraging student-led learning through “passion projects,” serving as a teacher mentor and school leader, and pushing her students to reach their full potential through a variety of educational opportunities. The result? Strong, confident learners in her classroom. 

Milken Educator Awards Vice President Stephanie Bishop and South Carolina State Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman surprised Snyder with the honor before cheering students, colleagues, state and local officials, and the media. Snyder is among more than 60 educators nationwide to receive the recognition during the 2021-2022 school year and the only recipient in South Carolina.

Hailed as the “Oscars of Teaching,” the Milken Educator Awards celebrate, elevate and activate the American teaching profession and inspire young, capable people to join it.

“Lesley’s belief in her students shows itself in everything she does. Because of this, she consistently graduates middle school students who are confident and ready to succeed in high school and beyond,” said Bishop, who herself is a 2001 Milken Educator from Virginia. “Her creative instruction and passion for diverse educational experiences are models for others to follow, and for that, we are pleased to honor her as a Milken Educator today.”

The Milken Educator Award is not a lifetime achievement honor. Recipients are heralded while 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.

“Lesley Snyder is a fabulous educator who pours her heart into her students each day at Dutch Fork Middle School,” said Superintendent Spearman. “She is truly deserving of this honor and will stand as a shining example for educators across South Carolina. Thank you to the Milken Family Foundation for recognizing Lesley with this prestigious award.”

Oprah, a longtime education advocate, shared her congratulations to this year’s winners in a video message shared earlier this year thanking “the most incredible educators around the country” and acknowledging her deep appreciation for the “tireless work” they do.

More about Lesley Snyder:

Motivates with “Passion Projects”: Snyder creates innovative, purposeful learning experiences that motivate and engage her students. She challenges the eighth graders in her honors classes to think independently and holds every student to the same high standards. Lessons include real-world examples and career connections, with parents, administrators and community members often joining the class for hands-on learning experiences. Snyder incorporates project-based learning, with semester-long “passion projects” and units where students use cross-curricular learning standards to create and code video games. Thanks to Snyder’s strategies for teaching text-dependent analysis, students leave her class as strong, confident readers and writers—one student even published a book inspired by a classroom project.

Serves as Mentor and School Leader: As English Department head, Snyder makes sure her team has everything they need to help students thrive, especially during the stressful pandemic period, when Dutch Fork has cycled through periods of virtual, hybrid and face-to-face instruction. Under her leadership, Dutch Fork turns out the district’s highest scores on state assessments in reading. Snyder worked with the University of South Carolina (USC) to develop PBL curriculum and professional development that has been shared throughout the state. She earned PBL endorsement from the Advancement of Workforce and Knowledge Economy Center at the University of South Carolina’s College of Education, a professional development initiative funded by the South Carolina Commission on Higher Education. Snyder mentors new teachers and is an evaluator for fifth-year renewal teachers. She serves on the district’s leadership committee for secondary English language arts and completed the district’s Leadership Academy for Aspiring Administrators.

Encourages Diversity in Learning: Snyder’s passion for diverse instruction and pushing all learners to reach their full potential has been inspirational. When she co-taught with a special education teacher, half the class had Individualized Education Plans in reading comprehension, fluency and writing; by the end of the year, the special education students performed at the same level as their honor student peers. Snyder helped students produce high-quality audio projects for the National Public Radio Student Podcast Challenge and is a mentor for Dutch Fork’s Pearls, a group focused on developing a growth mindset, building positive self-image and improving interpersonal skills. Outside of school, Snyder brings her teaching skills to an entirely different subject: aerial yoga.

Education: Snyder is a graduate of the University of South Carolina. She earned a bachelor’s in elementary education in 2012 and a master’s in education administration in 2016.

More information about Snyder, plus links to photos and video from today’s assembly, can be found on the Milken Educator Awards website at:

More about the Milken Educator Awards: “The future belongs to the educated.”

Along with the financial prize, Milken Educator Award recipients join the national Milken Educator Network, a group of more than 2,800 top teachers, principals and specialists. The network serves as a rich resource for fellow educators, legislators, school boards and others dedicated to excellence in education.

  • In June, the honorees will also attend an all-expenses-paid Milken Educator Awards Forum in Los Angeles, where they will network with their new colleagues as well as veteran Milken Educators and other education leaders about how to increase their impact on K-12 education. In addition, they will learn about how to become involved in the Milken Friends Forever (MFFs) mentoring program, in which freshman Milken Educators receive personalized coaching and support from a Milken Educator veteran on ways to elevate their instructional practice and take an active role in educational leadership, policy and practice.
  • Over the years, more than $140 million in funding, including $70 million for the individual cash awards, has been devoted to the overall Milken Awards initiative, which includes powerful professional development opportunities throughout recipients’ careers.
  • Veteran Milken Educators frequently go on to serve in leadership roles at state, national and international levels.
  • “We find you. You don’t find us!” Unlike most teacher recognition programs, the Milken Educator Awards initiative has no formal nomination or application process. Candidates are sourced through a confidential selection process and then reviewed by blue ribbon panels in each state. The most exceptional candidates are recommended for the award, with final selection made by the Milken Family Foundation.
  • The $25,000 cash award is unrestricted. Recipients have used the money in diverse ways. For instance, some have spent the funds on their children’s or their own continuing education, financing dream field trips, establishing scholarships, and even adopting children.

To get regular updates on the surprise Milken Educator Award events or to watch the award events unfold, follow and use the #MilkenAward hashtag on Facebook (@MilkenEducatorAwards), Twitter (@Milken), YouTube (/MilkenAward), Instagram (MilkenFamilyFdn), and TikTok (@MilkenAward).

For more information, visit or call the Milken Family Foundation at (310) 570-4772.


About the Milken Educator Awards

The first Milken Educator Awards were presented by the Milken Family Foundation in 1987. The awards provide public recognition and individual financial rewards of $25,000 to elementary and secondary school teachers, principals and specialists from around the country who are furthering excellence in education. Recipients are heralded in early to mid-career for what they have achieved and for the promise of what they will accomplish. The initiative was created by the Milken Family Foundation, which celebrates 40 years of elevating education in America and around the world. Learn more at