Eagle River High School teacher Valerie Baalerud was sitting near her students in an assembly waiting to hear a talk from state Education Commissioner Micahel Johnson. Then the topic of the Milken Educator Award came up.
The prestigious award comes with a $25,000 check from the foundation.
“I was totally shocked,” Baalerud said. “I was talking with some students about who it might be. We were all sort of making our bets and then at least one of those students said, ‘I think it could be you, Mrs. Ballerud.’ And I laughed and said I could always find a way to spend that money or something. And then they said my name and I was like, ‘Oh no!’ And she goes, ‘I knew it!'”
Baalerud grew up in small-town Pennsylvania. She says her hometown of Granville Summit has a population of about 60. She jokes there are more cows than people. She says she’s always been a history nerd and picked up teaching as a career because her first husband was in the military, and wherever the family moved, teaching jobs were available.
She ended up settling in Eagle River with her family and has been at Eagle River High School for eight years. Eagle River High principal Marty Lang says Baalerud earned the award.
“She is whip smart. Her energy is so infectious that when she’s in front of a classroom, kids just can’t help but love what she’s doing and love history,” Lang said. “She brings that every day to every class. It doesn’t matter at what level, she’s just such a dynamic teacher and a great ambassador for education that she’s more than deserving.”
The real purpose of the assembly was a surprise to almost everyone at the school. Lang was among a very small group of people who knew about the award.
“That’s the hardest part,” Lang said. “I found out sometime, I think, in mid-December and so for two months I’ve had to hold onto this secret that’s so much fun.”
Baalerud employs some creative teaching techniques. In an economics class today she incorporated a concept from the TV program Stranger Things to explain price floors and price ceilings. She also has her AP World History students describe their favorite historical events for their final exams. She also has her students create 1920s style radio shows. Baalerud’s dedication goes way beyond the classroom.
“I’ve done everything here at the school itself,” Baalerud said. “I’ve taught flag football; I was head coach for a while. I coached DDF — Drama Debate and Forensics. I’ve coached track and field. I’ve done a little bit of everything, and I think that’s really important as a teacher, to get to know your students outside of the classroom as well as in, and I’ve really enjoyed doing that.”
Baalerud says she plans to spend the award money on an upcoming family trip this summer.
“It’s really nice to have a cash prize with it. I’ve never won anything before… I won a bike when I was I was in second grade. This is way better,” Baalerud laughed.
Baalerud is one of 44 recipients of the Milken Educator award this year, and the sole Alaska award winner.