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Wayne State Alumni Earn 3 Major Teaching Awards

Published Wednesday, March 7th, 2018

Jon Pickinpaugh, DJ Smith, and Michelle Helt
From left to right: Jon Pickinpaugh, a 2018 Milken Educator Award recipient and 2015 South Sioux City Golden Apple Award recipient; D.J. Smith, the 2018 South Sioux City Golden Apple Award recipient; and Michelle Helt, the 2018 Nebraska State Teacher of the Year.

Jon Pickinpaugh, DJ Smith, and Michelle Helt, all South Sioux City teachers, have recently been recognized at district, state, and national levels.

Wayne State College graduates have earned a number of remarkable teaching awards. Three educators from South Sioux City have added these honors: Jon Pickinpaugh earned the Milken Educator Award; D.J. Smith received the Golden Apple Teaching Award; and Michelle Helt was named the Nebraska 2018 Teacher of the Year. 

“It was really neat this year with three people in our district recognized at the district, state, and national level with an award in education. Knowing we all have degrees from Wayne State made it even more special,’’ said Jon Pickinpaugh, who has taught for eight years at South Sioux City. He serves as eighth grade science teacher, seventh and eighth grade wrestling coach, and seventh grade football coach.  

Pickinpaugh was surprised with the $25,000 Milken Educator Award in front of students, administrators, and fellow teachers. Nebraska Lt. Gov. Mike Foley named him as the winner. Pickinpaugh will be included in the National Milken Educator Network, a group of more than 2,700 top teachers, principals and specialists dedicated to strengthening education. He will have an opportunity to attend a Milken Educator Forum in Washington, D.C., March 20-23. 

"Normally, I don't like to be surprised, but it was a great surprise," Pickinpaugh stated in a Sioux City Journal feature. Pickinpaugh said he thought he was going to an assembly to hear school officials talk about students' rising test scores on Jan. 11. 

“The most valuable thing about my award is that it gives me a voice with our government and I get to represent Nebraska and the other great educators who live in this state,’’ Pickinpaugh said. “The award I received is one of the highest honors you can earn nationally as an educator.  This is an award chosen for only the best in the nation.”

Educators cannot apply for Milken Educator Award and do not even know they are under consideration. A confidential selection process includes blue ribbon panels appointed by state departments of education. Pickinpaugh is the only honoree this year from Siouxland or Nebraska. Teacher magazine called The Milken Educator Awards ``the Oscars of Teaching."  The 40th Nebraskan to garner the award, Pickenpaugh will complete studies to become a school administrator with a master of science in education Pre K-12th grade administration at Wayne State College in May.

“I earned this award because I show up every day for my students and do whatever I can to make sure they receive the highest quality education.  I also make sure my students know that I am here for them if they ever need anything,” Pickinpaugh said. “I have a few former students enrolled in becoming educators through Wayne State College who email me or come back to my classroom to ask for advice.  I never thought this is where God would take me, but I am humbled and honored to be used to help others.”

Most of Pickinpaugh's life has been in northeast Nebraska as a native of Wayne. He’s working on the completion of his third degree from Wayne State College. His first was an undergraduate degree in business administration in 2005.

After a few years, Pickinpaugh said he found he wanted to make more of an impact in the lives of young people. His second career matched his mother’s calling as an educator. Pickinpaugh received a teaching degree from Wayne State in 2010, and began and continues to teach in the South Sioux City district. His sister, Leah Gomez, is also an educator in the district.

“I have received all of my college degrees through Wayne State College and feel as though the school of education equipped me with the knowledge and resources to go out and be a great teacher,’’ Pickinpaugh said. “The Wayne State College School of Education is second to no other.  Each faculty member I ever had in all three of my degrees have been exceptional and I have great relationships still with all of them.  Personally speaking my top role models from Wayne State College have been: Dr. Timothy Sharer, Dr. Joni Irlmeier (even though I played a great prank on her in her class by changing the clock so I could get out early to go hunting.)  Dr. Dennis Lichty, Dr. Marilyn Mudge, Sherry Doorman, Dr. Joanna Barnes (a relative), and Mary Hanson who helped me through student teaching, and the list goes on and on. They truly value you as a student and do not look at you as just another student passing through. If you want to be the best, you have to learn from the best and right now the best is Wayne State College.”

D.J. Smith, who earned his bachelor’s degree in music education in 2013 at Wayne State, is working on his graduate degree at the college, received the Golden Apple Award in South Sioux City. 

“This award has made me not only work harder as a teacher but in everything I do,’’ Smith said. “Not only am I a teacher and a graduate student, but I am also an active musician, a new business owner, and the president of the Ponca Area Community Club. It was a surprise for me. I did not realize what impact I had on our school and community. I am grateful to receive this award in a large school district like South Sioux City while only in my fourth year of teaching.”

Smith credited Wayne State faculty with a role in his success as a teacher.

“I have many continued connections at Wayne State College. I also work closely with the music department with district music contests and having them work with my bands,’’ Smith said. “I have earned the respect of my students and they know that I respect them. We have built great student and teacher relationships, something that I learned in my Wayne State College classes and from music faculty. Knowing there are teachers who care so much about you achieving success makes you want to be a teacher and do the same for your students.”

Helt, a third grade teacher at Cardinal Elementary School in South Sioux City, was named Nebraska 2018 Teacher of the Year, and a competitor for National Teacher of the Year. Nebraska Commissioner of Education Matt Blomstedt presented the award in October. 

“Both my (South Sioux City) school district and Wayne State College are committed to greatness in every endeavor,’’ Helt said. “My district is a strong proponent of the Professional Learning Community (PLC), which supports students and ensures all students reach their fullest potential by meeting students where they are in their learning journey and intervening or enriching students to ensure their learning continues. I’m honored to be a part of the PLC process as a district and in my third-grade cohorts. The hard work we have done in the areas of curriculum and assessment has had a profound impact on students.”

Helt began teaching in 2002 as a resource and Title I reading teacher at Cardinal Elementary and St. Michael’s Catholic School. She served as an ESL and resource teacher for a year at Cardinal Elementary before becoming a third-grade teacher where she has taught since 2004. Helt was a founding member of the South Sioux City District Curriculum Council. She earned a bachelor’s degree from Buena Vista University and a master’s degree from Wayne State College. 

A panel of Nebraska educators selected Helt as the 2018 Nebraska Teacher of the Year. The Teacher of the Year program recognizes the contributions of classroom teachers who are exceptionally dedicated, knowledgeable and skilled and who have the ability to inspire students of all backgrounds and abilities to learn. 

“I feel I received this honor because I represent what the teachers in Nebraska do every day. My classroom and style is one of purpose, focus, and fun, all are achieved in classrooms daily, but in very different ways,’’ Held said. “Being named the Nebraska Teacher of the Year has been an incredibly humbling honor. I feel incredibly blessed to represent all Nebraska teachers. As Nebraska Teacher of the Year, it is my hope to become a voice for students and teachers across our state.’’

These three outstanding teachers’ awards have been included in press coverage including a feature and photos in The Sioux City Journal.

More award information about the Milken Family Foundation Educator award can be found here.