A teacher from a Nebraska rodeo town has a wild ride ahead.

Megan Helberg, an English teacher from Burwell, was named 2020 Nebraska Teacher of the Year at a surprise presentation Monday.

Helberg teaches eighth, 11th and 12th grades at Burwell Junior-Senior High School, where the enrollment in grades 7 through 12 is about 150 students.

The award was presented in her classroom, where juniors were studying vocabulary words for the week. A delegation of state officials walked in to make the announcement.

“It took me a second to figure out what was going on — and my heart was racing so fast,” Helberg said.

She will represent the state at various state and national events and compete for National Teacher of the Year.

“It’s an incredibly humbling experience,” she said.

Helberg said she will use the platform to talk about the good things going on in Nebraska schools.

She lives on a family cattle ranch west of Calumus Reservoir, which is northwest of Burwell. About 75 miles northwest of Grand Island, Burwell is known for its annual rodeo, Nebraska’s Big Rodeo, first held in 1921.

Helberg is following in her mother’s footsteps.

Her mother, Sue McNeil, was named Nebraska Teacher of the Year in 1995.

McNeil, who is retired, taught social studies at Loup County Public School in Taylor.

Helberg started her teaching career at the Papillion-La Vista Community Schools in the Omaha metro area.

She said she didn’t set out to be a teacher. She wanted to take a different path than her mom. She entered college undecided and explored other careers, including pharmacy. But teaching was in her heart, she said.

Teaching brought her great joy, and it was a way to get involved in the community and help kids, she said.

She earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Chadron State College. She received her teaching certificate through the Transition to Teach program at the University of Nebraska at Kearney.

She attended Loup County High School, another small school, and believes she got a top-notch education. She said it’s an honor to teach in a small school.

In 2013, she used a Fund for Teachers grant to travel and explore Holocaust sites in Poland, Germany and the Czech Republic — and to buy instructional materials.

In 2016, she built on that knowledge when she was named a Museum Teacher Fellow with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. That meant learning about the Holocaust from renowned authorities and survivors.

She said she’s used those experiences to build Holocaust lessons into her teaching.

An avid traveler, her destinations have included Rwanda and the Amazon rainforest.

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Helberg wrote in her Teacher of the Year application that her goal in teaching is to bring a broader perspective of the world to her students.

“I feel that it is my responsibility to bring the world to my students,” she wrote. “I must keep taking steps to accomplish the ultimate goal of reaching the entire community about various races, religions and ways of life.”

She has hosted video chats with speakers and classrooms from different countries.

In addition to her classroom experience, Helberg has been a Burwell Public School Leader in Technology Educator.

The Teacher of the Year program recognizes classroom teachers who are exceptionally dedicated, knowledgeable and skilled and who are able to inspire learning in students of all backgrounds and abilities.

Nebraska Commissioner of Education Matt Blomstedt presented the award. A panel of Nebraska educators selected Helberg from among four finalists.

Other finalists were Mark Gudgel of North High School in Omaha, Robert Kerr of Hastings High School and Erin Meyer of West Elementary School in Sidney. They will be recognized as Award of Excellence winners.

Her husband, Dan Helberg, is a teacher, too. They have no children.

The Nebraska 2019 Teacher of the Year was Sydney Jensen of Lincoln High School.

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joe.dejka@owh.com, 402-444-1077

Joe covers education for The World-Herald, focusing on pre-kindergarten through high school. Phone: 402-444-1077.

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