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Mitchell teacher honored with national education award

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Amanda Christensen, a fourth grade teacher at Longfellow Elementary School, is hugged by Chailyn Priebe and the rest of her fourth graders after she was announced the winner of a $25,000 Milken Educator award during a surprise announcement on Wednesday morning in the Longfellow Elementary School gym. (Matt Gade / Republic)2 / 4
Amanda Christensen, a fourth-grade teacher at Longfellow Elementary School, thanks a crowd after receiving a $25,000 Milken Educator Award during a surprise announcement Wednesday morning in the Longfellow gym. Seated to the left of Amanda are South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard and First Lady Linda Daugaard, and behind Amanda is her husband, Marcus. (Matt Gade / Republic)3 / 4
At right Greg Gallagher, Senior Program Administrator the Milken Family Foundation, with the help of Governor Dennis Daugaard and Longfellow Elementary School students show off the total amount of money being awarded as part of the Milken Educator award during a surprise announcement that was held to award the prize to Longfellow Elementary fourth grade teacher Amanda Christensen on Wednesday morning in the Longfellow Elementary School gym. (Matt Gade / Republic)4 / 4

The moment Amanda Christensen was announced the recipient of the $25,000 Milken Educator Award, her students surrounded her for a giant group hug.

The fourth-grade teacher was in disbelief, as the award was kept secret from nearly everyone in the district. Students and faculty were told to gather in the Longfellow Elementary School gym Wednesday morning for what they believed to be a five-minute assembly. Instead, they were greeted by a group that included Gov. Dennis Daugaard, state Education Secretary Melody Schopp and the entire Mitchell Board of Education.

The national award is given to 35 educators across the country, and this year Christensen was the lone South Dakotan chosen for the award.

“You’re a product of your environment and I really feel like because of this innovative, amazing district I’ve been able to grow into the person that I am,” Christensen said.

Christensen has taught at Longfellow Elementary for four years, but is in her sixth year teaching, previously working at West Central School in Humboldt. The 28-year-old is a Mount Vernon native, who currently lives in Mitchell with her husband, Marcus, and their two children.

It’s her efforts in the classroom and dedication to the entire school district that earned Christensen the educator award.

The Milken award has been dubbed the “Oscar of teaching,” and to qualify for the award, Christensen was chosen through a confidential selection process reviewing her education talent, accomplishments, engaging presence and contributions to the school and community.

And Christensen has just that according to Sherri Becker, the Mitchell School District’s curriculum director.

“Her smile — that defines Amanda,” Becker said. “She approaches everything with that same smile, whether it’s the hard work of digging into curriculum reviews and filling out rubrics or whether it’s the lesson plans and signing up for class or going to meetings and helping out and going the extra mile.”

Becker was the first teacher in the school district to receive the Milken Educator, which she was given in 2003. And now, 13 years later, a second Mitchell educator can claim the same title.

Becker has been working closely with Christensen in the past year-and-a-half working on curriculum review, and she’s been impressed by her enthusiasm and dedication to the school.

As a previous recipient of the award, Becker is thrilled to see another Mitchell educator win the title and is excited to see the opportunities that await Christensen.

All of the South Dakota recipients of the Milken Educator Award seem to have one trait in common, according to Schopp: humility.

This is one of Schopp’s favorite events of the year, delivering the news that a South Dakota educator will be honored with a national award.

“The humility is so grounded in who they are,” Schopp said of the Milken recipients. “It speaks to why they are so passionate about the profession and I think that comes out very, very clearly …  It’s not about the job, it’s about the kids. Every time I’ve talked to them that’s a very clear message for them.”

Longfellow Principal Lisa Heckenlaible was tasked with forming a “mock assembly,” as she called it, and keeping the award a secret, which she said was hard in a place like Longfellow Elementary, where everyone is a family.

“When Amanda said she gives credit to the Longfellow family, we are a true family here,” Heckenlaible said. “Everybody is there to help each other, to lend materials, to lend curriculum to lend an idea,” Heckenlaible said. “But everyone just works as a solid team to help each other and that includes our students and our parents.”

Christensen was inspired to be a teacher by one of her own high school teachers who was always there for her. And she wanted to do that for others.

So, she graduated from Mount Vernon High School in 2007, then obtained a bachelor’s degree in 2011 from Augustana University. In 2014, she received her master’s degree from Augustana.

Shortly after that she was in her first teaching gig. Throughout her six years of teaching, Christensen said her favorite part of it all has been the students.

“I just want to give my kids every opportunity that they have available and whatever I can do to help grow and expand their learning,” Christensen said. “I’m in — whatever it takes.”

Christensen can do whatever she wants with the $25,000 she received. She has no concrete plans right now, but she said a trip to Disney World with her family might be a part of it. Other than that, the rest will go straight to savings, she said.

With the award, Christensen will attend a Milken Educator Forum this spring in New Orleans, where she will have the opportunity to network with other educators and speak with state and federal officials about education.

But for now, Christensen is going to focus on being the best teacher she can be.

“It makes me feel humble,” Christensen said. “ ... I learn from everyone in this district. I still feel like I’m so new and there’s so much to learn yet.”