Eagle River High School teacher Valerie Baalerud said she didn't know what to expect at a schoolwide assembly Thursday morning, attended by hundreds of students and a group of education officials including the Anchorage School District superintendent and the state education commissioner.
She certainly didn't expect the event to revolve around her.
"I had no idea," Baalerud said. "I thought we were going to hear the commissioner speak."
Instead, Baalerud was surprised with a national Milken Educator Award, likened to an Oscar for teachers, and a $25,000 no-strings-attached check. Baalerud is one of 44 teachers nationwide selected for this year's award, and the only teacher in Alaska.
She accepted the check amid loud cheers and applause in the Eagle River High auditorium. Her daughter, a high school junior, ran up to give her a hug, as did her husband, who is also a teacher at the school.
"I work with the best staff in the entire state," Baalerud told the crowd. "There's amazing things happening in Eagle River, and I just feel so proud to be a part of that."
Eagle River High Principal Marty Lang described Baalerud as a school leader who has a knack for keeping students engaged.
"She is high-energy, whip-smart and just has an infectious enthusiasm for everything she does," he said. "She's just an amazing teacher."
Baalerud, 40, is a social studies teacher and mother of four who grew up in a small town in northern Pennsylvania. She moved to Alaska about a decade ago when her husband at the time was stationed at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage.
Baalerud earned her bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of Alaska Anchorage. She started teaching at Eagle River High in 2011.
"I love history, I like public speaking and I like working with young people, so it seemed like a natural fit," she said.
Her students, she said, motivate her most.
She said she strives to engage them by keeping her lessons relevant. She was awake into the early hours of Thursday weaving parts of the Netflix series "Stranger Things" into a lesson plan about price ceilings and floors.
"I want to find a way to make the content relevant to every student in my classroom," she said.
Baalerud said she plans to put some of her award money toward her family's summer vacation. They're driving across the country in their RV. She'll also put some of it back into her classroom.
Baalerud is the 70th Alaskan recipient of the Milken award, given out by the Milken Family Foundation of Santa Monica, California.
Teachers cannot apply or be nominated for the award — it's a confidential selection based on criteria such as leadership, educational talent and accomplishments beyond the classroom.