Erin Karlgaard’s third graders were spread out in the gym Thursday, May 13, their masked faces and makeshift classroom the marks of a strange year, complete with a pandemic and school construction project.

In a year where teachers have already braced themselves for the unexpected, the Lowell Elementary School teacher was not prepared in the least for the group that marched into her class with flowers and a plaque Thursday.

Principal Todd Sauer led the crew — which included Karlgaard’s family and co-workers — to announce she had been named Brainerd Public Schools Teacher of the Year.

Her students clapped, as Karlgaard stood in disbelief and told them she wouldn’t have gotten the award had they not been so incredible themselves.

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“I have been blessed with an amazing group of kids this year, and I couldn’t ask for a better crew to work with every day,” she said after taking in the news. “So for me, it’s just an honor to be able to do my job and be with the kiddos, and I never expected something like this, so I’m shocked.”

But Karglaard’s family knows she deserves the award. Husband Matt and sons Ben and Eli were there to celebrate.

“We hear from lots of her students and parents about how great of a teacher she is, and we know how much she puts into it, and so I’m just really happy for her that she’s been honored this way because she lives it,” Matt Karlgaard said. “She loves the kids, and it shows. So it’s really great. I’m super excited for her.”

Surrounded by students, family and co-workers, Erin Karlgaard is overwhelmed with the news of her Teacher of the Year award Thursday, May 13, 2021, at Lowell Elementary School. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch
Surrounded by students, family and co-workers, Erin Karlgaard is overwhelmed with the news of her Teacher of the Year award Thursday, May 13, 2021, at Lowell Elementary School. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

One of those parents who sings Karlgaard’s praises is Alli Isaacson, who nominated her for the award.

“Erin has gone above and beyond to be available and to keep her students engaged throughout the hybrid and distance learning process,” Isaacson wrote in her nomination letter. “I’m both sad that my child did not get to spend the whole year physically in her classroom and incredibly grateful that we were lucky enough to have her as a teacher during distance learning. Erin took the time to connect personally with my student to help him manage his anxiety while navigating a very unusual school year. She was never unavailable or disconnected from the students. She kept expectations high but attainable and kept the classroom engaged and fun. Erin is a blessing to Lowell School and ISD 181.”

With all the ups and downs the year had to offer, Karlgaard said she tried to teach her students flexibility and resiliency, which she strove to model for them as well.

“We’ve made the best of it, and every day is an opportunity to try something new and be brave,” she said.

Aside from being shocked, Karlgaard also felt humbled Thursday, knowing there are so many teachers in the district deserving of this recognition because of all they do for their students on a daily basis.

Erin Karlgaard's third grade students help hoist up her Teacher of the Year plaque Thursday, May 13, 2021, at Lowell Elementary School. Karlgaard was surprised by family and co-workers with the news of her award. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch
Erin Karlgaard's third grade students help hoist up her Teacher of the Year plaque Thursday, May 13, 2021, at Lowell Elementary School. Karlgaard was surprised by family and co-workers with the news of her award. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

Principal Sauer agreed.

“There’s a whole school full of teachers of the year, I believe,” he said, also thinking back to Karlgaard’s time on the Parent Teacher Association at Lowell and her eight years of teaching in various posts at the school.

“She’s the type of teacher who’s never satisfied with the status quo, ever,” Sauer said. “She’s always a person who looks for ways to improve. How do we make kids better? How do we make schools better? She’s truly in it for everyone that she comes into contact with.”

Members of the Teacher of the Year selection committee praised Karlgaard’s dedication to building relationships with her students and attention to their mental and emotional health.

“This teacher won my heart and my vote because they are so completely student-focused and student-driven,” one committee member wrote. “They work to create students who own their own learning which I see as setting them up for success not just now, but long into the future.”

While teaching often does not seem glamorous compared to other professions, Karlgaard said it’s an important one.

“There are no other ways I can think of where you have a direct impact on our future,” she said. “And the kids I work with make me excited for what our future has to hold because they’re so incredible.”

THERESA BOURKE may be reached at theresa.bourke@brainerddispatch.com or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchTheresa.