Standing with her fourth-grade class Tuesday morning in the South Park Elementary School gymnasium, Alayna Siemonsma covered her mouth in surprise when Gov. Dennis Daugaard called her name.
And the tears began to flow.
"I had no idea," Siemonsma said of learning she was named a 2012 Milken Family Foundation National Educator, an honor that comes with a $25,000 award.
Siemonsma became a Milken national educator, the only one named in South Dakota this year, at a surprise ceremony attended by the governor, the mayor, state legislators, school administrators, the school board and South Park Elementary staff and students.
Siemonsma can spend the $25,000 any way she chooses and will join the Milken Educator Network, a group of more than 2,500 educators nationwide.
The Milken Family Foundation, based in California, honors distinguished elementary and secondary teachers, principals and teaching specialists around the country who are "furthering excellence in education." Candidates are recommended to the Milken foundation by a committee from each state's department of education.
This is the second consecutive year that a teacher from Rapid City Area Schools took home the honor. Last year's winner, Nicole Keegan of East Middle School, helped hold the giant ceremonial check for Siemonsma on Tuesday.
Keegan "invested" her $25,000 winnings in her husband's doctoral degree in higher education administration. Just minutes after receiving her check, Siemonsma said she hadn't even thought about how she will use the money.
After the ceremony ended, Siemonsma, still wiping tears from her eyes, joined her fourth-grade class for a group photo. Students wrapped their arms around her waist and showered her with compliments.
"I crossed my fingers that it was you," one boy told her. "You're the best teacher ever," a girl said, reaching up for a hug.
Siemonsma said when she realized the mysterious ceremony was to honor an educator at South Park, she immediately thought of several colleagues who deserved the honor.
"I love my colleagues," she said. "This is everybody's award, because we all do this together."
That answer is exactly why Siemonsma deserves the Milken honor, South Park Principal Rod Haugen said. Siemonsma, who mentors other teachers, is the "driving force in the area of professional development at both school and district levels" and is responsible for creating a documentation process for student comprehension that is used district-wide. She models "lifelong learning."
"She is always willing to do more," Haugen said.
Dawson Schoenfelder, 9, had a more succinct description of his teacher and why she deserved her award.
"She's always nice," he said, before adding with a smile, "and she does everything perfect."
Contact Lynn Taylor Rick at 394-8414 or firstname.lastname@example.org