National honor

LAKE STEVENS — Not even the state schools superintendent knew the name of the secret winner.

The Viking pep band drummed up heart-pumping excitement while Lake Stevens High School students filled their gym bleachers Tuesday morning for the announcement of an elite, national honor for the school.

As the students listened, it became clear that one of their teachers was about to win a $25,000 Milken Family Foundation National Educator Award.

But who?

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn opened an envelope with the winner’s name.

He called out “Dan.” Pause. “Alderson.”

The crowd cheered and chanted “Alderson, Alderson, Alderson.”

English teacher Daniel Alderson, 38, staggered to the gym floor.

“In all honesty, as we were listening to the qualifications for this award, I was thinking of so many of my colleagues — people who work hard and inspire students,” Alderson said. “I had no idea. This feels totally undeserved.”

Tom Boysen, of the California-based Milken Foundation, said nobody is nominated or applies for the prestigious award. Instead, winning teachers are sought out. Alderson, who has earned certification with the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, also leads classes for prospective teachers at a local private university and is working to obtain his school administration credentials.

Dorn urged all Lake Stevens students to thank a teacher on Tuesday.

“Schools are vital to our future, our economy, our society and our democracy,” Dorn said. “Teachers are the driving force behind good schools. And some of you aren’t easy to teach!”

The Milken Family Foundation annually gives awards to as many as 40 teachers around the country. Alderson is now among a group of about 1,000 teachers nationwide who have been recognized by the foundation during the past 25 years.

In the bleachers, senior student Kyle Lawson, 17, agreed that Alderson was worthy of the award. He stood with his classmates to give Alderson a standing ovation.

So how will Alderson spend the personal, unrestricted award of $25,000?

“I am taking my family out to lunch at Five Guys Burgers and Fries,” Alderson said. “They would like to go to Disneyland, but I probably will pay off my student loans.”

Alderson grew up in Colville believing he would follow in the footsteps of his teacher Robert Whalen. But when he graduated from high school, friends convinced him that teaching was no way to make a living. Alderson went to work for a grocery store chain and soon was earning $50,000 a year.

Following the death of his father, Alderson decided about 12 years ago to return to his dream of teaching. He studied at Spokane Falls Community College and Gonzaga University, relying on his wife’s part-time job and his sales of firewood to feed their family.

Lake Stevens athletic director Ed Bailey helped Alderson get his job at Lake Stevens in 2004.

“What he lacked in classroom experience, he made up for in life experience,” Bailey said. “His passion for teaching was written all over his application.”

At first, Alderson lived in Bailey’s basement. He helped coach the cross-country team and his balding head earned him the nickname Coach Balderson. When his family joined him in Lake Stevens, they moved into a two-bedroom mobile home in a trailer park.

Though his wife, Naomi, and daughter Eliana, 12, were at a doctor’s appointment on Tuesday morning, Alderson’s other daughters Eden, 7, Eryn, 10, and Emily, 14, were picked up at their schools by Bailey so they could be on hand for the assembly.

“I am happy for my dad,” Emily said. “He works hard as a teacher. He works at night and on the weekends. He takes breaks, but mostly he works.”

Before running off to get burgers for his family, Alderson returned to his classroom where his 11th-grade students worked on a writing project. They applauded as he walked through the door. He issued an assignment as he grabbed his jacket.

Students Floretta Woart and Katherine Isom, both 16, praised their teacher as one of the best, ever.

“I had Mr. Alderson for a teacher last year, too,” Katherine said. “He has inspired me to become a writer.”

Alderson said his motto, his touchstone as he calls it, is “whatever is best for my students.”

“And whenever people ask me why I teach, I tell them that I am addicted to light bulbs,” Alderson said. “I love that moment when a light bulb goes on in a kid’s head. That ‘aha!’ moment.”

Gale Fiege: 425-339-3427; gfiege@heraldnet.com.

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