All in the family

Mother-Daughter duo of McNeil, Helberg earns Teacher of the Year honors across different decades

Megan Helberg has always wanted a spacesuit, just like her mother, Sue McNeil’s.

“I remember when my mom went to space camp and she got her own space suit, with all the NASA stuff on it, and it said her name on it. I wanted that. I went through this whole astronaut phase,” Helberg said.

McNeil has treasured that spacesuit since 1995 – the year she attended space camp as one of her duties as the Nebraska Teacher of the Year.

It wasn’t in the cards for Helberg to do the same, though. She had her sights set instead on the pharmacy field.

Then, something changed.

“One day I came home from the pharmacy and thought, ‘I respect this profession, but it’s just not really where I see myself long-term,’” Helberg said.

She realized she loved reading, learning, expressing herself through writing and being around people.

“I could just see her really shining as an educator,” McNeil said.

Twenty-five years later in 2020, 10 years after switching career paths, Helberg got the chance to represent Nebraska as the Teacher of the Year. She has taught at Burwell for 11 years, but will return to her alma mater, Loup County in Taylor, this fall.

McNeil and Helberg are the only known parent-child duo to have both earned the honor.

From hospital to Capitol

“When they came into my classroom and surprised me, I said, ‘I wish my mom and dad could be here,’” Helberg said.

The award committee didn’t know who her mother was, until Helberg mentioned her name.

“I have a different last name and we didn’t teach at the same schools. I think it was neat that they didn’t know we had any sort of connection,” Helberg said.

Helberg’s experience accepting the honor was much different from her mother’s. While Helberg held the title during a pandemic, she reflected on her own experience when McNeil won during a time of intense family stress.

“I remember when my mom got it. There I was, 10 years old, and my dad was in surgery for his heart transplant,” Helberg said. “We were down there (at the University of Nebraska Medical Center) for 62 days, and that is when my mom found out she was Teacher of the Year.”

“It was a pretty emotional roller coaster,” McNeil said. “I had to leave my husband in the ICU to go to Lincoln for the ceremony, and I was quite nervous about that. But it was nice to have something really positive going on in my life while we were going through the traumatic heart transplant surgery with Tom.”

“When you’re 10, you see things through a pretty different lens. Now that I’m an adut, I can’t imagine how she kept it all together for our family and at school and just carried on being amazing in all of her roles,” Helberg said.

TOY in a pandemic

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Helberg didn’t get to experience everything that came along with the title – and the Teacher of the Year has a lot of responsibilities.

They participate in the year-long National Teacher of the Year professional learning program; speaks at functions throughout the state including the Nebraska Rural Community Schools Association conference, Administrator Days and the NSEA Delegate Assembly; joins in workshops across the state; and attends the National Teacher of the Year Washington Recognition Week in Washington, D.C., the weeklong International Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama, and the weeklong National Teacher of the Year Program Next Steps conference in Princeton, New Jersey.

“It’s hard not to be a little bitter about how everything went down with COVID because we got to have one gathering together before COVID,” Helberg said, “but they have said it’s not over. They’re going to try to do a couple of trips for us when it’s safe to resume traveling.”

McNeil said the Teacher of the Year program has evolved and improved over the years. When she held the title, all the state Teachers of the Year attended space camp and went to Washington, D.C., to meet President Bill Clinton together, but those were the only times they interacted with one another.

Now, they’re split into cohort groups for activities all year long and beyond.

“They get to spend a lot more time with each other, sharing best practices and being with other really great teachers from different parts of the country, and I think that’s a wonderful thing,” McNeil said. “I think that makes you a better teacher to be exposed to other ideas and what’s working in other states.”

Learning by example

Helberg had her mother as a social studies teacher for six years at Loup County Public Schools in Taylor. McNeil taught junior high and high school.

“I got to see her in action and really, truly learn from one of the best,” Helberg said. “She was ahead of her time, as far as project-based learning.”

Every year, McNeil involved her students in a project that would enhance or improve the community in some way.

“I really admire my mom because she brought in this element of service to your community. She brought in an element of ‘hands-on,’ which became very popular 20 years down the road,” Helberg said.

McNeil made an effort to separate her school life and her home life, something Helberg said she tries to mimic.

“Teachers kind of have this sense of, ‘Oh, I’m a teacher. That’s my whole life. That’s everything about me,’” Helberg said. “But then I always think, ‘What if something happens and you’re not a teacher anymore, and your whole identity is wrapped up into that?’ Yes, being a teacher is a large part of me, but that’s not all of me. I’m very open about that with my students, that I have other areas of interest and other things that I like to pursue.”

‘Raise it all up’

Both McNeil and Helberg said it’s often difficult for teachers to put themselves out there when it comes to receiving accolades, but they encouraged other teachers to apply for Nebraska Teacher of the Year. Even if they don’t win, they’ll learn something new.

“Go for it,” McNeil said. “The process of the application really is a way to help you figure out what kind of teacher you are. The questions are very difficult, and you really have to do a lot of thinking...‘Where do I stand on this? How do I feel about this?’ It helps you be a better teacher just by going through the process.”

“It made me more aware of some of my strengths and made me aware of some of my weaknesses,” Helberg said.

Helberg quickly learned that all the other Teachers of the Year from other states felt the same way.

“It’s not about ego and it’s not about inflating your own status. It really truly is about learning as much as you can and then bringing that back,” she said. “Once you learn to just be confident in yourself and that you do belong, it’s about your entire school and your entire community and how you can raise it all up.”

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