Alison (Sadler ’05) Ter Horst leaned over to her colleague and said, “I wonder if they’re giving an award today.”
The Washington High School “civics” assembly had seemed vague from the start; now, as education dignitaries filled the Sioux Falls high school gym, the two rattled off names of fellow teachers deserving recognition. Ter Horst never considered including herself because she had missed three weeks of school last year when her four-month-old daughter Willow needed open-heart surgery. This season of life had preoccupied her head and her heart—so much so that she wasn’t sure she heard correctly when her name was called.
South Dakota Secretary of Education Dr. Ben Jones presented Ter Horst with the Milken Educator Award, a mid-career recognition that comes with an unrestricted prize of $25,000. Ter Horst is among 40 honorees across the nation, and the only winner from South Dakota this year.
“Alison inspires students not only through her innovative instructional strategies and high expectations, but by modeling perseverance and compassion for others,” says colleague Jamie Van Sloten.
Ter Horst helped spearhead the district’s Teacher Pathway Program, which grants college credit for students seeking to become educators. A psychology teacher, she says the field lends itself naturally to sharing her struggles.
“I tell them at the beginning of the school year that I had an infant daughter who passed away and a daughter with Down syndrome who has had two open-heart surgeries,” she says. “You can’t choose what happens to you, but you can choose how you respond. You can be bitter or you can channel it into something beautiful.”
One of Ter Horst’s former students was last year’s recipient of a scholarship named for her first daughter, Quinn. Originally from Nepal, he returned from college and told his teacher that as the only nonwhite person in his class, he was struggling.
“It’s hard,” she told him, “but that will serve you well, my friend.”
Ter Horst plans to use the prize money to pay medical bills and pursue self-care. She’ll also give back to her school—one of her ideas is to build a laundromat for students without washers and dryers at home.