Connections: Linking Talented Educators
Connections: Linking Talented Educators

Spotlight: Alison Ter Horst (SD '19)

January 3, 2020

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For psychology teacher Alison Ter Horst (SD ’19), success as a student means loving others, respecting your peers and personal growth: “Are you better today than you were yesterday or a year ago? I don’t care if you’re at the top of the class. Are you progressing? Are you moving forward?” Alison received South Dakota’s 2019-20 Milken Educator Award at Washington High School in Sioux Falls on October 16, 2019.

Milken Family Foundation: Your psychology classes are one of the school’s most popular electives. Why is psychology such a good fit for your students?

Alison Ter Horst (SD ’19): Psychology relates to anything they choose to pursue in the future, because everyone’s future involves people. Learning about why we think and behave the way we do resonates with students.

MFF: What do you like about high school students?

Alison: I love high schoolers (most days!). They are fun and mature enough to follow most instructions but really have an interest in psychology, which makes my subject so fun to teach.

MFF: How did you end up a teacher?

Alison: I originally wanted to be a guidance counselor, so that’s why my major was psychology. But at the time, my advisor in college suggested I should teach for a few years, then go back for my master’s in guidance counseling. But I loved the classroom so much, I never went back for that counseling degree (though I did get a master’s in educational leadership). I’d wanted to go into counseling because of my passion for relationships. I only discovered my passion for the classroom during my student teaching.

MFF: What do you remember from your first year of teaching?

Alison: I currently teach a class for students who want to be future teachers, and I always tell them that when I run into students from my first year of teaching (14 years ago), I am sometimes embarrassed. I have come such a long way. That first year is just so hard, trying to keep up with planning and finding your own style of classroom management. But I was surrounded by such supportive staff and administration who continually motivated me to grow. For all of my 14 years in the classroom, I have had administrators who have helped fill my bucket.

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MFF: Tell us about the Teacher Pathway program. Is it achieving its goals of building a pipeline of quality educators for South Dakota students?

Alison: I am in my second year of teaching this class, and every day I am reminded how amazing it is. It really has rekindled my love and passion for teaching because I have to tell my students my “why.” I get to go back to the basics of effective teaching one class period, then live it as a teacher the next period. It also has fueled my passion for cultural responsiveness and fighting for the students who don’t feel like they are heard. I totally believe I am just a small part of building a better future for South Dakota’s education system.

MFF: Who are your role models?

Alison: I had so many educators who modeled what building solid relationships looked like (Mrs. Pat Manues) or a passion for what you teach (Mr. Jerry Becker, who cried every time he spoke about Teddy Roosevelt). But here at Washington High School, I am surrounded by amazing teachers. Teachers who have taught me so much about effective strategies and keeping students engaged. There are probably a dozen teachers at my school who are just as deserving (if not more deserving) of this Award for their passion and teaching.

MFF: How did you feel at your Milken Educator Award notification?

Alison: When the Award was presented, I remember leaning over to my colleague and saying, “I’m going to cry for whoever gets this! This is so wonderful!” But I had no idea it would be me. When my name was called, my mind went blank. Needless to say I was very surprised and my family and friends would tell you that I'm not surprised very easily.

MFF: How did students respond to your Milken Award?

Alison: My students have been so wonderful and supportive. Previous students have even emailed or stopped back in to tell me congratulations. It will be interesting to see what the lasting impact will be on them. I hope it showed them that education should be celebrated.

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MFF: How do you think you’ll use your $25,000?

Alison: Dozens of ideas have been floating in my head. There are the practical ideas, like paying off medical bills from my daughter’s open heart surgery. There have been philanthropic ideas like starting a laundromat at my school for students who need a place to wash their clothes, or putting some of it toward a scholarship in the name of my late daughter (she passed away from SIDS in 2012). But there have also been self-care ideas like a trip. I guess we will see!

MFF: How do you define “success” for yourself, and for your students?

Alison: My ideas of success have really been evolving since my daughter Willow was born with Down Syndrome a year and a half ago. In a nutshell, I believe success in life for everyone is, first, love. Am I loving others well? As a teacher, that means building relationships and treating the students like I would want my own children to be treated. It involves giving them grace and patience. As students it is treating your peers with respect, clothing your neighbor, sticking up for the underdog, sitting with the kid who has no one to sit with. And, second, growth. Are you better today than you were yesterday or a year ago? For my students, I don’t care if you’re at the top of the class. Are you progressing? Are you moving forward?

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MFF: What do you hope your students carry with them from their time with you?

Alison: I have had a lot of hardship in my life. My first child, Quinn, passed away from SIDS at 5 months old in 2012. In 2018 we had Willow, who was born with a surprise diagnosis of Down Syndrome and has needed two open heart surgeries. Every year on Quinn’s birthday we ask family, friends and the students at my school to help us celebrate her life by doing random acts of kindness. “Celebrate Quinncidence” has been an amazing thing for my family, but also for my school.

I hope my students remember that life throws you a lot of unexpected hardships, but you always have the power to choose how you react. You can become bitter or you can choose joy. You can always choose to get back up and help others. I may teach my heart out in class, but what I really want students to take with them is having a model for how to react when life gets hard.

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