BURWELL — In Megan Helberg’s English class at Burwell Junior/Senior High School, students are able to learn about the world in addition to reading and writing.
This school year, Helberg said she has had visitors in-person and via video chat from Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands and Rwanda to teach students about historical topics such as the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide.
“I love to travel and learn new things about the world,” Helberg said. “I understand for many students in Burwell, travel is difficult and doesn’t happen all the time. I really believe fully in trying to bring the world to Burwell and into my classroom by bringing in visitors from not just this country, but all over the world. We do video chats and read books that are multicultural to really help us learn about what is going on beyond the classroom walls.”
Helberg, an eighth-, 11th- and 12th-grade English teacher, was honored for her teaching Monday morning as she was named the Nebraska 2020 Teacher of the Year during a surprise award presentation at the school. The Nebraska Department of Education has awarded the award annually since 1972.
“I am feeling very surprised,” Helberg said on receiving the award. “I am also feeling very grateful and, now that it is sinking in a little bit, I am feeling a little overwhelmed. I have been surrounded by wonderful educators my entire life. To now be recognized as a wonderful educator is quite surreal. I am always trying to better myself and I never really think I am at my best. This is exciting because I know I still have room to grow and learn.”
Helberg was one of four finalists for the Nebraska Teacher of the Year award. Mark Gudgel of Omaha North High Magnet School in Omaha, Robert Kerr of Hastings High School in Hastings, and Erin Meyer of West Elementary School in Sidney were also finalists and will be recognized as Award of Excellence winners.
All four finalists will be honored by the Nebraska State Board of Education at a November luncheon.
Nebraska Commissioner of Education Matthew Blomstedt said through Helberg’s award application, he could tell she “really tries to make learning come alive” in her classroom.
“I saw her interest in topics like the Holocaust and the Amazon,” he said. “Those are areas I think are wonderful because when you are an English teacher, kids get around the world through their experiences.”
In accepting the award, Helberg thanked Burwell administrators for believing in her, and her students who she said the award is really about.
“I just want to thank my kids for believing in me and for going on some of these crazy adventures together in bringing all these different people into the classroom and connecting it back to reading, writing and speaking,” she said.
Junior Kelsey Simpson said Helberg makes learning fun, encourages them to read and challenges them in their reading.
“We read (works from) authors from different countries and it gives us a different perspective,” she said. “You usually think you’ll learn about different cultures through history, but I probably learn the most about the world in English. Mrs. Helberg brings in visitors; we get to ask them questions and we get to learn about what their lives are like. She brings all of her memories back when she travels and teaches us all about what she has learned through that.”
Junior Barak Birch said Helberg’s teaching style makes English fun and easy to understand.
“Mrs. Helberg makes English really fun,” he said. “Her classes are always really fun and interactive. I love English classes with her.”
Helberg said her journey into education was a non-traditional one. As a student at Chadron State College, she was initially an undecided major before eventually graduating with a business degree. She then decided to pursue a degree in pharmacy with the hopes of being a pharmacist, but later decided it was not for her.
Helberg said, “My husband asked, ‘What is it that you really like to do?’ I said that I love to read and write. I started taking classes and here I am 10 years later, teaching English.”
What sparked Helberg’s passion for education? She said her mother, Sue McNeil, who taught at Loup County Public Schools for a number of years and was named the 1995 Teacher of the Year, had a huge influence on her decision to pursue teaching. Helberg said she initially wanted to steer clear of teaching to avoid following in her mother’s shadow, and filling her shoes, and to pursue her own path. But, she said, she later realized she did not have to fill her mother’s shoes and had her own shoes.
“My mom was definitely supportive of my decision,” Helberg said. “I always knew deep down that teaching is where my heart lies and it allows me to be involved with kids in other activities. I am also the volleyball coach and I find a lot of joy in that, especially in a small school. Being a part of this school is such a big part of being in the community. It makes me feel really connected to the community as well.”
Helberg said she tries to use her own story to teach her students that they may start somewhere and end up somewhere else, just like she did.
“I always tell my students that when they get to be seniors and everybody is asking what they are going to major in and what they are going to do, that I didn’t know until I had already graduated from college,” she said. “I really encourage them to dabble in a couple different areas they might be interested in to really see if it is for them. Eventually, you are going to find your path. It is OK if you don’t know.”
Nebraska State Board of Education member Maureen Nickels, who attended Monday’s surprise ceremony, said it was “pretty special” to have a Teacher of the Year winner from the Sandhills. Blomstedt echoed Nickels’ comments and said he hopes the Teacher of the Year award helps people across the state realize there are great teachers in smaller communities, as well as larger cities.
“We have so many great teachers across Nebraska and this is just a celebration of what is wonderful about teaching and the education environment,” he said. “I think in Mrs. Helberg’s case, it is great to see someone drawn back into education because it is what she was born to do. You can just see that.”