Anchorage teacher Paul Campbell walked into Tuesday morning's assembly at Chester Valley Elementary School expecting it to focus on social-emotional learning, perhaps tying the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday into the discussion.
But he soon realized he was wrong.
Campbell was surprised with a national Milken Educator Award, and its $25,000 no-strings-attached check. Campbell, known as an engaging educator who makes learning fun, was speechless. He accepted the award Tuesday in an auditorium filled with applauding students, educators and community leaders.
"I never once assumed it was going to be for me," Campbell, 30, said of the award, likened to Oscars for educators. "We have an amazing staff and anyone here at this school could and should be recognized for this award."
Adrianne Grenier, principal at the East Anchorage school, described Campbell as key school leader and a "great teacher" who easily connects with parents and students. He has different songs and chants to help students with reading and vocabulary and for singing at school-day transitions, like lining up at the door.
She said she'll never forget opening Campbell's classroom door last school year and hearing him and his students belting out "Let It Go" from the movie "Frozen."
"Kids really love being in his classroom," Grenier said. "It's an exciting place to be. Every time I'm in there, even if I'm just doing an evaluation, I always end up smiling and laughing because it's fun and engaging in his room. But also more importantly, he's just a huge part of our school community."
This is Campbell's sixth year at Chester Valley. He graduated from West High School in 2005 and became a teacher in the Anchorage School District after graduating from Eastern Washington University in Cheney. He said his students are inspiring and he hopes, as a teacher, he helps them develop into "well-rounded citizens."
"My real overarching goal is that at the end of the day, my kids leave as good human beings — they're kind, they're empathetic, they can understand when someone is feeling hurt and the way to react to that," he said.
Campbell said he will have to talk with his wife, a teacher at Aquarian Charter School, about how they will spend the $25,000 award. He said they may put it aside as a college fund for their 4 1/2-month-old daughter, Leah. He said he was also thinking about donating part of the award back to the school.
Each year since 1985, the Milken Family Foundation of Santa Monica, California, has presented awards to teachers across the country based on criteria such as leadership, educational talent and accomplishments beyond the classroom.
Jane Foley, senior vice president of the Milken Educator Awards, said teachers cannot apply or be nominated for the award — it's a confidential selection process in which state education departments collaborate with the Milken Family Foundation.
Up to 35 teachers will receive an award across the country for the 2016-17 award season. Campbell is the only Alaska teacher to receive an award this year. He is the 10th ASD teacher to receive the award since 2000.