Hayfield Secondary School teacher Elizabeth Gallinis teaches a geosystems class, talking to seniors Bethel Esayas, left, and Jennifer Aparicio. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

Elizabeth Galinis sat quietly in the bleachers of the Hayfield Secondary gymnasium, oblivious that she was about to receive the teacher’s equivalent of an Oscar.

Galinis, a science teacher who also specializes in working with teens who hope to become the first in their families to attend college, joined the entire school on a recent Friday morning for what Hayfield administrators had described blandly as an awards ceremony.

The secret was that the award was worth $25,000. The surprise for Galinis, too, was that she was the winner.

“I wouldn’t be here without you guys,” Galinis told the students gathered in the gym, tears welling in her eyes. “That’s what keeps me here.”

Galinis is one of 40 teachers this year to receive a Milken Educator Award. Michael Milken and his brother, Lowell Milken, co-founded the awards to honor educators, who chose a field that lacks the prestige associated with professions such as acting, music and sports.

Hayfield Secondary School teacher Elizabeth Gallinis. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

“She’s created a love of learning and a love of science and a feeling that they can all succeed,” Michael Milken said. “I think she serves as a role model.”

In a letter to Galinis, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) wrote that she deserves the award for her “remarkable” ability to make lessons in the classroom relevant to the everyday lives of teenagers.

“You have clearly demonstrated your commitment to promoting excellence and innovation in public education,” McAuliffe wrote.

The nomination process for the award is secret, and the teachers do not know they have won until the surprise announcements. While Galinis said she was shocked, her colleagues were not.

Latrease Rich sat next to Galinis during the assembly in late February as Milken explained the award to students.

“We’re telling her, ‘It’s going to be you,’ ” Rich said.

Galinis, 34, earned a bachelor’s degree in marine science from the University of South Carolina in 2001 and later received a master’s degree in environmental science and policy from Johns Hopkins University. She joined Fairfax in 2007 after serving as an administrator at the National Academy of Sciences. Working with bureaucrats turned exhausting, Galinis said, so she decided to switch careers and became a teacher.

“I got really bored dealing with the federal government and the politics,” Galinis said.

At Hayfield, she’s known for building relationships with the teens in her geosystems classes.

“If I need help with anything, she’s always there,” said one of her students, Laura Bissoondharry, an 11th-grader. “She does everything for us.”

Michael Milken said that he and his brother thought it odd that “the most important profession” didn’t get the same kind of recognition as other professionals, who on some level learned or enhanced their skills with help from teachers.

“Good teachers do make a difference, and we should thank them more often,” he said.

The Milken Family Foundation and the Milken Institute recently announced donations of $50 million to George Washington University to support a public health scholarship. Michael Milken, a 67-year-old financier, has used his considerable wealth to fund numerous charitable efforts. His fortune has drawn longtime scrutiny, as he was involved in “junk” bond trading in the 1980s and pleaded guilty to securities and reporting violations, serving 22 months in jail and paying a $200 million fine.

The Milkens established the award in 1985 and have given out more than $64 million in awards to 2,600 teachers. Past winners in Fairfax County include Ann Wong and Debbie Tyler, who currently serves as an assistant superintendent of the school system.

For Galinis, the real reward comes when she walks into school every morning.

“This is not a job you go into for the accolades,” Galinis said. “It’s everyday being with the kids that’s the award. Everyday I see positive changes. I know here that I’m making an impact.”