SOUTH SIOUX CITY | South Sioux City Middle School teacher Jon Pickinpaugh thought he was going to an assembly Thursday morning to hear school officials laud students' rising test scores.
Instead, in a surprise, Pickinpaugh received a $25,000 Milken Educator Award in front of an enthusiastic crowd of students, administrators and fellow teachers. The presentation was completely unexpected, he said at the conclusion of the ceremony, after lots of hugs and handshakes and a wave of applause and students standing and yelling.
"Normally, I don't like to be surprised, but it was a great surprise," Pickinpaugh said.
Pickinpaugh, 34, is one of just 44 Milken Educator Award winners for the 2017-18 academic year and the only honoree from Siouxland or the state of Nebraska. The annual awards are widely known as the "Oscars of Teaching."
"We don't accept nominations. You don't find us, we find you," Milken Family Foundation Senior Program Administrator Greg Gallagher said.
Gallagher, who was present for Thursday's ceremony, called Pickinpaugh's exceptional teaching a model for the state and nation.
Pickinpaugh has taught for eight years at South Sioux City, where he is currently an eighth grade science teacher and coach. The students filled the east bleachers and sat in five more rows on the gym floor. They were highly enthused to hear which teacher would win the award, as Gallagher explained the details.
Gallagher invited students to hold cards with individual numbers equal to the award amount. He tricked them into first thinking the award would be $250. When a zero was added and the supposed amount was $2,500, the students grew more impressed.
When the third zero was added, bumping the total to $25,000, the audience roared.
Pickinpaugh was praised by Gallagher and Lt. Gov. Mike Foley, who named the teacher as the surprise winner. Pickinpaugh is the 40th Nebraska student to garner the award since its inception three decades ago.
South Sioux City Middle School Principal Tom McGuire said it wasn't easy to keep the secret that a district teacher was winning such a substantial award. McGuire said he had known for three weeks, since right before Christmas.
"(Pickinpaugh) is just an outstanding leader in our building...He builds relationships with kids," McGuire said.
Pickinpaugh also is aiming to be a school administrator like McGuire. He will complete his studies at Wayne State College in May to be a school administrator.
Much of Pickinpaugh's life has been in northeast Nebraska. A native of Wayne, he is nearing completion of his third degree from Wayne State College. He achieved the first, an undergraduate degree in business administration, in 2005.
After a few years, Pickinpaugh found he wanted to make more of an impact in the lives of young people, so he veered to have a second career that matched that of his mother, who is a longtime teacher.
Pickinpaugh received a teaching degree from Wayne State in 2010, and has taught since then in the South Sioux City district. His sister, Leah Gomez, is also an educator in the district.
"What makes me a good teacher is making relationships with kids," Pickinpaugh said.
The Milken Educator Awards, created by the Milken Family Foundation in 1987, recognizes teaching excellence publicly not only to inspire educators, but students and entire communities about the importance of joining the teaching profession.
Last week, this year's only South Dakota honoree, Carla Diede, a middle school teacher in the Harrisburg district, also was surprised with a $25,000 award.