Neither children nor their teachers knew exactly why they were filing into the gym at Prairie Center Elementary on Tuesday, the last day they’d all be together before breaking for Thanksgiving.
Guests from across the state, including Kansas Commissioner of Education Diane DeBacker, had gathered at the Olathe school to honor one mystery educator. But even as guests were introduced, eyes roamed around the gym for any hint about why the assembly was happening.
When DeBacker introduced Tom Boysen, a board member of the Milken Family Foundation, teachers looked as if they finally understood. One of them was about to receive a $25,000 grant to use as he or she thought best.
But first came a little more buildup. Boysen and DeBacker told the students how important their teachers are.
“Each one of you has a teacher that you think is really great,” Boysen said. Then he asked the students to raise their hands if they want to become teachers. The gym filled with raised hands.
Six students walked to the front of the gym, where Boysen handed five of them large postcards. Each flipped their card over one at a time. First a “$” then, “2,” “5,” “0,” “0,” “0.”
“Being a teacher is just as important as being a professional football player or a dancer and we want to help one teacher here at Prairie Center with this money,” Boysen told the students.
Commissioner DeBacker returned to the microphone as the students and teachers voiced a drum-roll.
“Your 2013 Milken Family Foundation National Educator is Michael Berndt,” DeBacker said.
Berndt put his hands over his face in surprise as his students cheered and gathered around him. The gym erupted in applause as his co-workers gave him a standing ovation and ushered him to the front of the gym, where people were holding a poster-sized check.
“First I think of the family and the commitment to education that we all have here at Prairie Center,” Berndt said when he joined the others in front. “Every day here is a challenge and every day here brings a smile to my face.”
The $25,000 award is not a life-time achievement award, instead goes to teachers in their early or mid-career. Boysen said the idea behind the prize is to help young educators who show promise in the field, but also to encourage the winner’s students to pursue a teaching career.
Boysen said that other winners have used the money in many different ways. Some use it to help pay-off students loans, go back to school, buy a house or adopt a child.
Berndt said he plans on using the money to continue his own education so that he can further the education of his students.
Berndt began his teaching 10 years ago in the Manhattan-Ogden School District in Kansas. For the past three years, he has taught third grade at Prairie Center.
“Mr. Berndt doesn’t just expect excellence from his students, he expects it from himself,” Prairie Center principal Natalie Browning said in an announcement about the award.
Berndt said he is honored to join the 59 other educators from Kansas who have received the Milken National Educator award.
“I think of all of the other educators who could have very easily won this award and I hope that they know they have each done a part to get me where I am,” Berndt said. “They won with me.”