GRAFTON, N.D.-Brittany Larson, a first-grade teacher, got the surprise of her professional life Tuesday at an assembly at Century Primary Elementary School in Grafton.

Larson, who has taught first grade for 10 years at the school, was presented the 2018-19 Milken Educator Award by a representative of the Milken Family Foundation.

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She is one of 33 educators nationwide who are receiving the honor which has been described as the "Oscars of Teaching" by Teacher magazine.

Larson is the only North Dakota teacher to receive the Milken Educator Award this season. None in Minnesota received it.

The honor, which includes a $25,000 award, is given to outstanding educators who may use the money any way they choose.

The award recipient was a closely guarded secret until Greg Gallagher, senior program director with the Milken Family Foundation, based in California, made the announcement in the school gymnasium.

"It was amazing, crazy. It was fun," said Larson, who looked a bit stunned after the event. "I'm still shaking."

Other than paying off school loans, she wasn't sure what she would do with the unexpected funds, she said.

The Grafton native said, each day, she loves to come to school where she calls her students "a classroom family."

Her goal is to make sure students "know they are loved, they are safe, and they will be engaged throughout the day," she said.

Knowing they are loved "is everything-learning comes second," she said. "They need the feeling of security. Otherwise they cannot focus."

Larson also received the Outstanding Teacher Award from the Grafton Chamber of Commerce this year.

Milken Educator Award recipients become members of the Milken Educator Network, a group of 2,700 top teachers, principals and specialists dedicated to strengthening education. The 2018-19 award recipients are invited to attend the Milken Educator Forum to be held later this month in New Orleans, where they will have the opportunity to network with their new colleagues and hear from state and federal officials about maximizing their leadership roles to advance their effectiveness as teachers.

Award recipients are selected in early- to mid-career for what they have achieved and for the promise of what they will accomplish, said Lynne Russo, a communications officer with the Milken Family Foundation which sponsors the award.

Larson, the daughter of David and Kelly LaBonte of Grafton, and her husband Chris Larson, have two sons, Bjorn, 5, and Beau, 2, and live in Grafton.

A 2003 graduate of Grafton High School, Larson earned a bachelor's degree in education at the University of Minnesota-Duluth and a master's degree in differentiated instruction from Concordia University in St. Paul.

A teacher "is the only thing I ever wanted to be," she said.

After the award announcement Tuesday, her colleagues gathered around to offer congratulations and hugs. Many were tearful.

"It's a wonderful honor for her-and good for the school and the community," said Stacey Gaustad, a Century Elementary school teacher. "She makes it fun to come to work every day."

Gaustad said Larson is most deserving of the award.

"Someday, when people talk about what teachers made a difference," she said, "there'll be a lot of kiddos who'll talk about her."

Gallagher, representing the Milken Family Foundation, said the country needs more excellent teachers and he hopes the recognition of one of their own will inspire students at Grafton to consider pursuing a teaching career.

Milken Educators are selected by a blue-ribbon panel of education leaders appointed by each state's department of education. Selection is based on their achievements and leadership at the school level and beyond.

The award alternates yearly between elementary and secondary educators.

Unlike many other teacher recognition programs, educators cannot apply for this recognition and do not even know they are under consideration, Gallagher said.

Through a confidential selection process, the candidates are reviewed by the panel. The most exceptional candidates are recommended for the award, with final approval by the Milken Family Foundation.