There were clues about what was going to happen Tuesday afternoon in the Eastridge Elementary gymnasium.
Alan Eighme’s wife suggested he wear nice clothes that day, rather than the athletic shorts he’d been considering in honor of the school’s walk-a-thon.
The Lincoln Public Schools executives who filed into the gymnasium were another hint.
The new walking track was a big deal of course, as was the walk-a-thon to raise money for the playground -- which was why Eighme and all the kids thought they’d gathered in the gym -- but not a big enough deal to draw the superintendent.
Still, Eighme was shocked when it became clear that everybody was there for him and the 30 years he's dedicated to the students at Eastridge, an accomplishment worthy of LPS’s most prestigious honor: the Scottish Rite Distinguished Teacher Award.
“Every day I walk down the halls of this school, and I see amazing things,” a tearful Eighme told the students sitting cross-legged on the gym floor. “You have a whole life ahead of you to learn.”
That passion -- for learning, and for his students -- moved Principal Deb Dabbert to nominate him for the competitive award, now in its 51st year. The award comes with $3,000, and Eighme’s portrait will join those of other winners at the district office.
“He has a unique ability to connect with every child, to make every student feel special,” Dabbert said.
Some years ago, two of those students were his own daughters, both of whom had their dad as their first-grade teacher.
He met his wife through a teacher at Eastridge, too, where he landed his first job out of college.
Eighme, 52, grew up in a small Iowa town called Arispe and attended a consolidated school, graduating in 1980. He earned his bachelor's and master's degrees from Northwest Missouri State.
He decided to head to Lincoln for an interview after LPS recruiters interviewed him at the college and suggested he do so.
He didn’t know much about the Nebraska capital, only that it had more people than the 100 who lived in his hometown.
“I knew I wanted to be in a town that had a pizza delivery place,” he said.
He started at Eastridge in 1985, and spent many years teaching first grade. He went on to teach other grades, landing in fourth grade three years ago.
“I had no intention of staying here,” he said. “It just sort of happened.”
People have asked him why he doesn’t look for other challenges, but he doesn't see it that way.
“There are challenges every day," he said, "if you just look for it.”
In college, he considered earning a degree in medicine, but the classes didn't really hook him. He was intrigued, though, by the teaching lab he walked by daily and decided to take an education class. That hooked him.
“That was it,” he said. “That’s all she wrote.”
Dabbert said Eighme is always learning, finding new ways to reach students through workshops and professional development. Other teachers seek him out for advice.
But Eighme said he learns from those he works with every day.
“This isn’t my award,” he said. “This belongs to so many people who have had a strong influence on what I’ve done.”
He’s watched Eastridge change over the years, becoming more diverse culturally and socioeconomically. Families are different now than in 1985 -- more single parents, more households with two working parents, more kids who don’t have coats in the winter, or food on the weekends, or who don't speak English.
But some things haven’t changed: his role as a teacher.
“Teaching is really about taking kids where they are and moving them forward,” he said, “exposing them to information and helping them grow. I see that as my purpose.”
He learns, too, from teaching, getting a deeper understanding of phonics and decoding and comprehension skills every year he stands in front of students, teaching them.
And watching those students learn has always been the best part of teaching.
“I love the expression on a child’s face when you see they get it,” he said.