Shannon Hill’s face said it all. When she walked into Thermopolis Middle on Friday morning, she did not think she would come away with $25,000.
“She was frozen for a second,” said Greg Gallagher of the Milken Family Foundation, which presented the teacher with a surprise national teaching award and the money that came with it.
“I was completely shocked and overwhelmed all at the same time,” Hill said, still laughing incredulously, nearly two hours after she received the award. “I just couldn’t believe it was me.”
In a video of the ceremony, state Superintendent Jillian Balow stands at a lectern and asks the assembled students for a drum roll. The entire assembly was a ruse: The students and staff gathered in the gym thinking they were going to receive a schoolwide award. The winner was a secret, known to few in Wyoming.
Then the gathered students and staff were told it was a teaching award for someone in the room. The drum roll began. Being middle schoolers, the students didn’t miss the opportunity to make some noise.
As the human drum roll rose, Balow announced Hill’s name.
Hill slowly stood from the bleachers, cupped her hands over her mouth, and then, almost in a smiling stupor, she made her way down to the gym floor, where Balow and other educators waited for her, grinning and holding a jumbo-sized check.
The award had been completely secret: The Hot Springs School District superintendent, Dustin Hunt, found out Hill had won in September, and he was sworn to secrecy. Hill’s husband didn’t know until she called him Friday. He was proud of his wife, she said, and then she told him how much the check was for.
As staff and students looked on, the prize was first announced as a $250 check. Then officials added a zero. Finally, it was announced that the real prize was $25,000.
Then the drum roll, and Hill’s name rang out.
“I thought it would be our eighth-grade math teacher,” Hill said afterward, laughing again.
She’s in her sixth year at the middle school, where she teaches health and physical education. She was Wyoming’s first winner of the Milken Educator Award in some time, Balow said, and was one of 44 winners nationwide.
In addition to her check, Hill won a trip to Washington, D.C., and inclusion in an exclusive club of past Milken winners.
The award was a needed bit of good news in Wyoming’s education community, which has grappled with cuts amid a funding crisis. A number of legislators, including Senate President Eli Bebout, have criticized districts and said the state isn’t receiving an acceptable return on its substantial education spending.
But Hill’s award was a pushback on that, she said.
“The work that teachers are doing day in and day out, before school, after school, we don’t do it for recognition. We don’t do it for the big checks,” she said. “Teachers work so hard, just with that mindset of bettering each student, making sure students are successful and living the best life that they can.”
She praised her colleagues repeatedly and said she couldn’t do her job without their daily support.
Hill was surprised she won partially because her area of teaching doesn’t have a way to really measure success. There aren’t statewide tests that can be tracked, results that she can point to as tangible evidence that she’s doing well.
That those stats don’t exist and Hill won anyway is a testament to her ability, Hunt, the superintendent, said.
“You can’t really put a graph on what she does in a school,” he said, adding that she was a pillar of the Thermopolis community. “But she’s a leader and exudes excellence.”
Hill works hard to keep students active during and after school, even into the summer. Still, she’s trying to figure out why she won.
“That’s what I keep asking myself,” she said. “I know the work that I do. ... You know, my colleagues, they work just as hard as I do. I’m trying to implement our PE program into summer programs. I have a summer program where I take kids hiking and biking.”
But how did Milken, a national organization, hear about a PE teacher in Thermopolis, Wyoming? How did a teacher serving a school district of less than 700 students become a winner, especially when the organization doesn’t accept recommendations or applications?
Balow said she’d spoken with the Milken people and that one of her goals since taking office was to produce a Wyoming winner. Gallagher said the organization worked with a “blue ribbon panel” to help identify possible educators. Finalists are found, and a panel of educators and others helps decide.
Balow hopes that Hill’s win will mean more Milken awards will come to Wyoming in the coming years.
“Please take a look at Wyoming,” she remembers telling Milken officials. “Wyoming has just not been on their radar.”
But she says she worked hard to re-establish a relationship with the organization and hopes that Wyoming has blipped back into their minds.
As for Hill, she was still in shock. “Overwhelmed” was a frequent word.
Then, of course, is the question of what she’s going to do with the money.
“That’s what my daughter keeps asking me,” she said. Her daughter is a fifth-grader who was in attendance when her mom won. “My first thought was just to give back to the school and see what we can do.”
“Obviously I won’t spend it all on the school,” she continued. “I just feel overwhelmed. The amount of money is nothing I would ever imagine.”