Christa Speed knew something was up when choir students, school administrators, fellow teachers, community members and the media began filing into her classroom on Monday at Grand Island Senior High, but she wasn't sure exactly what was happening.
A few moments after the interruption, she was "overwhelmed" to discover she was the recipient of the 2013 Kim West Dinsdale Award for Excellence in Teaching.
Tammy Morris, chief executive officer of the Grand Island Community Foundation, and board member Judy Smith made the announcement in front of one of Speed's orchestra classes.
The award was founded in 2005 to honor Hall County teachers who demonstrate an exceptional love for and quality in teaching. The winner is chosen from nominations submitted by current and former students, parents of students, colleagues, principals, administrators, family and friends. The nominations include reference letters and a two-page essay detailing the reasons why the teacher serves an example of educational excellence, Morris said.
"Teachers can change the world," Morris said.
She added that she's glad the foundation was able to set up a unique fund to recognize teachers.
The foundation received more nominations this year than in any of the previous years. Several students wrote letters about the impact Speed has had on their lives.
Smith shared a few of the comments from the nomination letters. One colleague wrote that Speed is "extremely dedicated" and spends countless hours with her students. Another colleague wrote that Speed is respected by other orchestra teachers in the area.
A number of students wrote about Speed's rare ability to teach them about more than music.
Senior Abbey Kutlas wrote a nomination letter at the request of Speed's husband, Terry. She's in orchestra and has taken private violin lessons from Speed since she was in the third grade.
Kutlas wrote about Speed coming to each rehearsal with excitement and energy.
"Her passion for music is obvious as she works hard to impart a love and respect for each piece we play," Kutlas wrote. "Although we are just teenagers, Mrs. Speed does not shy away from challenging or mature pieces of music. Mrs. Speed believes in each student and the talent they possess. She believes it is important that students broaden their horizons and experience everything the world has to offer."
Kutlas was excited to be on hand when her teacher was presented with the honor.
"She really deserves this award," Kutlas said. "She truly cares about more than just orchestra."
Kutlas said it's amazing how much Speed knows about music and how she gets the orchestra members out into the community to share that music. She also makes them more culturally aware by playing pieces from other countries and by taking an international trip every three years. Kutlas was able to go to Ireland with the orchestra and Speed last year.
"She's a big fan of making us better humans, not just musicians," Kutlas said.
Music broadens a student's horizons and can unify the student body, she said.
"It means a lot to me that she won," Kutlas said. "She's a really special person to a lot of people."
Speed is a proponent of academics and knows that education is the key to everything, Kutlas said.
"The world needs more good teachers, more teachers like (Mrs.) Speed," she said.
After learning about the award, which carries a $5,000 prize, Speed posed for photos with Superintendent Rob Winter and Senior High Principal Jeff Gilbertson holding a giant check. She also had photos taken with her husband; her mother, Helen; and her aunt, Ruth. The women came from North Platte for the presentation.
Before all the photos were snapped, Speed took a moment to push her glasses up on top of her head and wipe away tears. A student had set a box of tissues on a stand in front of Speed shortly after class was interrupted.
"I'm, like, totally overwhelmed," Speed said in her classroom. "This is a real shock. Teaching is easy and enjoyable when I have such a great group of students. I appreciate it, and it's an honor."
The presentation concluded with the orchestra playing "Swingin' on the Housetop" for the group that had gathered in the classroom.
In addition to teaching at GISH, Speed teaches at Walnut and Barr middle schools and maintains a private cello studio. She has served as president and membership chairwoman of the Nebraska Chapter of the American String Teachers Association (ASTA), secretary of the national executive board of ASTA and orchestra chairwoman of the Nebraska Music Educators Association. She's the founder and coordinator of Strictly Strings, an annual middle school orchestra festival that attracts students from across the state.
She was the ASTA Teacher of the Year in 1993, was awarded the American String Teachers Citation for Exceptional Leadership and Merit in 1998, received the Moonshell Arts and Humanities Council Larry Maupin Education Award in 2003, was inducted into the Nebraska Music Educators Hall of Fame in 2008 and received the James Johnson Memorial Chair Award and the Distinguished Service Award from the Nebraska Music Educators Association in 2010.
Speed said winning the Dinsdale award is truly an honor because of the number of great teachers in Hall County. In her 36 years with Grand Island Public Schools, Speed said, she's worked with great people and has "always had great kids to work with."
She hopes people will realize the impact music has on individuals. It requires both self-discipline and teamwork and makes people better, she said.
Although she'd just won the award, Speed was already thinking of what to do with the money. She and her husband were planning to go to Hawaii to visit their daughter, who will be living there for two months as part of a traveling production of "The Lion King."
"We're definitely going now," she said with a smile.