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Argus Leader: Augustana Alumna is Top Teacher

Top teacher

Middle school educator subtracts boredom from math
Jill Callison, Argus Leader

Who taught one of the Sioux Falls School District's best teachers?

Who showed Kira Christensen how to make learning a joyous experience for her students?

Who taught her education is not just a September through May experience that only happens in the classroom?

Almost everyone she has come in contact with, says Christensen, recipient of the 2009 Milken National Educator Award.

It began at home. Her father, Ray Christensen, taught in the Sioux Falls district for 20 years and also worked at the state level, serving as secretary of education at one point.

Her mother, Alice Christensen, taught for three years at Patrick Henry, then a junior high, before leaving to raise her family of four.

Patrick Henry, it turns out, also is where the youngest of the Christensens' four children began her teaching career six years ago, spending two years there before moving to Washington High School.

It is where Christensen learned from teachers such as Candace Ulmer and Carol Heisel.

She first met them as a student teacher still a bit surprised to find herself going into education.

It happened midway through her four years at Augustana College, after she quit a three-month job in an office cubicle earlier than planned because she just couldn't stand it any longer.

"It was at that moment I realized I wanted to work with people, I wanted to work with youth, and I really loved math," Christensen says.

"I was taking math courses even though I didn't have a math major yet."

Christensen would guide prospective students around the Augustana campus. She learned early on that if she told people she enjoyed math, almost always the response was tales of how the other person hated math.

"I made it a habit to always ask why, and there was always a story that had to do with something that happened in a class or with a teacher," Christensen says.

Her own experience had been much different. In addition to having her interest in math encouraged at home, Christensen says she also was fortunate to have teachers like Donna Leininger, who taught her Advanced Placement Calculus at Washington High.

"I used to sit in class and (think), not that I'm going to be a teacher, but if I was ever a teacher, I would totally do that," Christensen says of Leininger's methods.

"Everything she does comes from the fact that she cares so much about her students and them being successful. She was there before and after school for any questions she had. And she did every single one of our homework problems. You could go and look at her homework."

For the past four years, Leininger and Christensen have taught together.

"She just is exceptional in her love of education others and helping others and the way she motivates students," Leininger says.

"Kira's background in technology is exceptional. She makes old-fashioned math in the technology era interesting for (students)."

After six years in the Sioux Falls school system, Christensen has found that helping hands are extended to her even outside her own building.

She calls Roosevelt High School's Jeff Lukens a mentor and a source of "sage wisdom."

"He'll laugh at me for saying that," she says.

But Lukens, a 30-year teacher, describes Christensen as the most eager and joyful learner he has ever met.

"She's such a positive, enthusiastic learner, I just love it," Lukens says.

"She's such a credit to the profession For such a young teacher, she is so polished and so seasoned. I feel like she's my own kid, I'm so proud of her."

The Milken prizes go to excellent early- to mid-career educators as a way of bringing them public support. Ray Christensen, as secretary of education, helped bring the prize to South Dakota.

"It's pretty special, though lots and lots of teachers deserve that recognition and affirmation," he says.

"(Kira)'s one of many. What they're doing is important, and they're doing a good job."

Kira Christensen has encountered people who downplay the role of teachers, particularly those mocked and misunderstood "summers off."

Her $25,000 Milken award will be put toward out-of-state tuition to the University of Michigan at Flint. For the second year in a row, Christensen will travel to Geneva, Switzerland, where in August she will receive her master's in the technology and education global program.

Christensen says she honestly does not believe she would have received the Milken award if she wasn't teaching where she does.

"I'm only as good as the teachers I get to collaborate with," she says.

"My administration has from the get-go been encouraging and supportive of us, and the parents and the students in our school are outstanding."

At 27, Christensen says, the Milken prize is not her final achievement. The award was announced in October and awarded in May.

"This is just one step in what I hope will be a career dedicated to education," she says.

"It definitely opens doors. It's been a really crazy ride this year but pretty cool. It's once in a lifetime."