Sheila Peterson, a physical education teacher and athletics coach at Wachter Middle School in Bismarck, has been named as North Dakota’s 2024 Teacher of the Year, state School Superintendent Kirsten Baesler and Lt. Gov. Tammy Miller said in a joint announcement on Thursday.
Peterson will succeed Ivona Todorovic in January as North Dakota’s Teacher of the Year. Todorovic is an English Language teacher at Red River High School in Grand Forks.
Thursday’s announcement in the state Capitol’s Memorial Hall came at a ceremony held to celebrate Peterson and the three other finalists for Teacher of the Year: Andee Mattson, a music teacher and choir director at Rugby’s Ely Elementary School; Trisha Schaefer, a sixth-grade math teacher at Ramstad Middle School in Minot; and Megan Wasness, an English teacher at Devils Lake’s Central Middle School.
“I’m in complete awe. I shouldn’t be here. I can’t help but reflect on the caring and selfless teachers and adults in my life who completely transformed my world,” Peterson said as she accepted the award. “They saw potential in me when I couldn’t see it myself, and their unwavering support and guidance allowed me to grow into the person I am today.”
Todorovic, in introducing Peterson as her successor, called her “our Mrs. Yes, always open to new challenges and opportunities.”
“So, Sheila, thank you for inspiring us, all of us, to be more than just teachers, more than just educators, but advocates for a brighter future for North Dakota,” Todorovic said.
Baesler praised Peterson as an educator who “follows the philosophy that leadership is a privilege to better the lives of others.”
“She wants to help instill confidence and courage in her students and help them to become kind and confident young people,” Baesler said. “She makes people feel important, acknowledges them, and finds ways to make them feel seen, heard, and validated.”
Miller said Peterson “is widely respected and renowned for making a lasting, positive impact on her students, instilling a sense of belonging and engaging them in innovative ways to inspire learning and develop skills that will serve them well for the rest of their lives.”
“We are grateful for Mrs. Peterson, her fellow 2024 Teacher of the Year finalists and all North Dakota educators who go above and beyond to prepare our students for a successful future,” Miller said.
Peterson has been a physical education teacher, athletics coach and reading strategies educator at Wachter since 2010. She holds a bachelor’s degree in education from Dakota State University in Madison, S.D., and a master’s degree in technology for education and training from the University of South Dakota. Before taking her position at Wachter, she taught physical education at middle schools in Huron, S.D., and Chamberlain, S.D.
Aside from coaching basketball, volleyball and track and teaching physical education, Peterson works with students to improve their reading and academic planning skills.
Peterson paid tribute to her supportive family during Thursday’s ceremony, especially her mother, whom she said “had a remarkable work ethic and hustle.”
“My mother raised me with the highest expectations. No matter our life situations, she told me that I had to succeed in spite of difficulties, whether it be financial, or personal, or a terminal cancer diagnosis, she never allowed us to take a second to feel sorry for ourselves,” Peterson said. “She taught me that my life difficulties would be the reason that I would succeed. If I could survive these tough times I can accomplish anything, by going to work for it.”
Nick Archuleta, president of North Dakota United, an organization that represents public employees and schoolteachers, said during Thursday’s ceremony that teachers “play a pivotal role in shaping not just individuals, but societies. They shape our democracy.”
“There are substantial challenges in education today but you four teachers, who we are honoring today, are so inspiring because despite these challenges, you get up every morning committed to educating our future,” Archuleta said. “It’s not easy, but it is absolutely crucial to teach young people to respect each other, to work collaboratively, to accept that our diversity is also our strength.”
Luke Schaefer, chairman of the North Dakota K-12 Education Coordination Council, asked North Dakota families to take time to praise their children’s teachers.
“Any time you’re in the supermarket, the church, in the halls of the school … if you see a teacher, if you know a teacher, provide them the support that they need,” Schaefer said. “Let them know that they're appreciated, that they are amazing, and that they're worth it. Our teachers pour out their hearts, and it's in our best interest to do the same.”
The work of choosing the 2024 Teacher of the Year began last spring, when Baesler invited nominations for County Teachers of the Year. Forty-two North Dakota educators were subsequently honored as Teachers of the Year from their respective counties.
The four finalists for the state Teacher of the Year award were picked from among the group of 42 educators, including Peterson, who was chosen as Burleigh County Teacher of the Year.
The state Teacher of the Year was chosen by an eight-member screening committee of education stakeholders, who reviewed their applications and interviewed the finalists. The process is outlined in North Dakota law, NDCC 15.1-02-21.
Her selection means Peterson will be considered for the honor of National Teacher of the Year, which will be announced in the spring of 2024. The Council of Chief State School Officers, which represents state education interests in Washington, D.C., supervises the selection process.
One of Peterson’s former students, in a letter advocating that she be chosen as Teacher of the Year, described her as being “what teaching is all about.”
Logan Schaubert, a Bismarck High School alumnus who was a student in Peterson’s sixth-grade physical education class at Wachter, said he considered Peterson the most impactful educator he has known. “She puts the kids first, leaving positive and life-changing messages whenever you speak with her,” Schaubert said.
Erik Hanson, a Wachter math teacher, said in his own recommendation letter that he “cannot overstate (Peterson’s) impact at Wachter Middle School and the greater Bismarck-Mandan community.”
“I have no doubt that Mrs. Peterson educates everyone she encounters, whether intentional or not,” Hanson said. “She draws people in, makes them feel safe, heard, (and) understood, and guides them in whatever way she is able. Education is not solely her career, it is who she is as a person.”
In her remarks at Thursday’s ceremony, Peterson urged North Dakota educators to have high expectations for all of their students.
“Give them opportunity, even when you know they might let you down sometimes,” she said. “Think about how you can impact their lives and empower them to believe in the beauty of their dreams.”