Fairfax County history teacher Philip Bigler--honored as National Teacher of the Year in 1998--yesterday received a very different award for excellence in the classroom: a check for $25,000.

Bigler, 47, was wide-eyed as he accepted the Milken National Educator Award check, the equivalent of more than a third of his annual salary, at a surprise assembly at the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. Afterward, he said neither glory nor riches come close to the pleasure he gets from teaching. He said he and his wife Linda, a Jefferson Spanish teacher, are thinking of ways to use the money in their classrooms.

No one applies for the Milken award, designed to make teaching careers more exciting with serious cash rewards. Bigler, a teacher for almost a quarter-century, said he was surprised by the announcement, but no more than the school's 1,600 cheering students who had been summoned to the gym for an impromptu assembly.

The Milken awards, funded by multimillionaire and convicted felon Michael Milken and his brother Lowell, provide the largest cash awards for U.S. educators. The Milkens say they want to remake the peanut-butter-sandwich, beat-up-used-car image of teachers living on a tight budget, and have begun to expand that vision with a new, corporate-centered plan to remake the entire education profession.

Bigler said yesterday that he thought more money was important for teachers, at least as applied to higher salaries and more resources for their schools. He saluted the other teachers at the assembly by saying "most people cannot do what you do every day of your lives."

The Milkens this month plan to give their 1,500th educator award over the last 12 years. The awards total $37.5 million, or more than the annual budgets of most school districts.

"We hope to encourage talented young people to pursue education as a career and to retain and motivate those already in the classroom, particularly as the nation faces an alarming shortage of quality teachers," said Lowell Milken, president and co-founder of the Santa Monica-based Milken Family Foundation, who attended yesterday's assembly.

This is the first year Virginia has participated in the award program, in which state officials pick leading educators without their knowing and invite the Milkens to present the checks in surprise ceremonies.

A Virginia state education department spokeswoman said Gov. James S. Gilmore's new education team thought the program fit well with the state's efforts to encourage better standing and training for teachers as they help students reach new achievement targets.

Milken officials said they plan to give awards to four Maryland teachers this year, raising that state's total to 32. A Milken spokesman said there have been no talks about D.C. schools participating in the program.

The first awards were given in 1987, and have now expanded to 41 states. Winners are invited to a gala dinner in Los Angeles each June, often hosted by celebrities such as Bill Cosby and attended by dozens of state school superintendents.

Some winners have confessed to being concerned that colleagues who are just as good are going unrecognized, but so far no educator has refused the money, which is unrestricted. Many teachers have used some of it to help their schools and others have paid personal bills. Several have said they were most comfortable using it for the college educations of their own children.

In a report released this year, Lowell Milken said he hopes to launch a major effort to give teaching some of the high-profile career-building traditions of corporate life. He noted that a survey of college-bound high school students found that "barely one in 10 express a strong interest in teaching."

Milken outlined a Teacher Advancement Program in which school districts would compete for good teachers, pay them more as their skills increased, provide more mentoring in the first year, and pay more attention to results in the classroom.

Bigler was named 1998 National Teacher of the Year by the Council of State School Officers and Scholastic Inc. Milken and Virginia officials said they were impressed that unlike many previous honorees, he went back to being a classroom teacher as soon as his year of speechmaking and consulting was over.

CAPTION: Philip Bigler, history teacher at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, also was 1998 Teacher of the Year. He has been teaching for almost a quarter-century.