ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - Valerie Baalerud, a social studies teacher, sat at the top of the bleachers inside Eagle River High School's gymnasium Thursday morning for what she thought would be an assembly to hear from the state's commissioner of the Department of Education and Early Development.
Baalerud was right, but what she didn't know was that Commissioner Michael Johnson would be announcing her accomplishment as the newest recipient of the Milken Educator Award.
Dr. Gary Stark, CEO of the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching, also a recipient, spoke about the importance of the award.
"These awards say in a very public way that greatness in public education should be recognized," Stark said.
Baalerud is one of 44 recipients across the country to receive an award, and the only one for Alaska this year.
"I had no idea," Baalerud said. "Rumors started spreading there was maybe an award, so I was excited to hear Eagle River get some acknowledgement, but I had no idea it was an individualized award and certainly not for me."
Now in her eighth year in the classroom, Baalerud teaches Alaska studies, ancient civilization, AP world history, AP microeconomics and economics.
"My students drive my passion for sure," Baalerud said. "In addition to my students, my own children, I have my middle daughter in my classroom for the first time, I have my own child in the classroom so it gives me sort of a different perspective in getting to see it from the parent side of things too, and I think that makes me a better teacher."
Bob Williams, Dir. of Educator and School Excellence with the Alaska department of education, said Baalerud earning the award speaks to the quality of teachers in the state, despite challenges with high teacher turnover and other issues.
"It says we have high quality teachers, we have effective teachers that do amazing things with students every day across the state of Alaska and it's important to recognize that and the challenges we face," Williams said. "We can't solve them without amazing teachers in the classroom helping students learn and thrive."
Johnson, a recipient of the award himself in 2008, said it's an opportunity to recognize one of the state's best teachers.
"It's a great thing for students to see that we value our teachers and recognize when good instruction is happening in the classroom," Johnson said.
Baalerud strives to make lessons relevant to students in the present.
"I want to be current, I want to make sure the things that I'm teaching are relevant," Baalerud said. "Teaching history, sometimes you have a tendency to teach dates and names of people that are long gone, I want to find a way to make the content relevant to every student in my classroom."
On Thursday for AP econ students, it's a lesson centered around the popular show Stranger Things.
"I used the Stranger Things model because Will is caught in the, no spoilers here, but he's caught in the upside down and with price floors and ceilings, the ceiling is on the floor and the floor is on the ceiling," Baalerud said. "...I incorporated a bunch of Stranger Things to make it contemporary for them."
Military families make up 45 percent of the student body at Eagle River High School.
Baalerud says it is a perfect fit for her, being able to empathize with students whose parents are deployed.
"My ex-husband deployed seven times in a 10-year time span and it was, it was really difficult," Baalerud said. "It was difficult from a spouse perspective, it was difficult for my children. I knew what it was like to have someone gone for a year, 18 months at a time and the impact and the pressure that that puts on students in the home."
Besides earning the Milken Award, which has been around for 30 years, it also comes with a $25,000 check.
Baalerud hopes to put the money toward a six-week road trip this summer.
"I am going to go and score the AP world history exam in Salt Lake City, 'cause that's how a teacher vacations, we go and score essays for a week," Baalerud said. "We didn't really have all of the financial aspects of that taken care of so I think I'll probably spend a little bit of money there on that, it'll make that vacation a little bit more relaxing and educational for my kids, 'cause we can stop and see more national monuments."
Some of the money will also go back into Baalerud's classroom.