The gym at Mountain Range High School in Westminster was packed with students and staff, the band played catchy tunes, and cheerleaders shook their blue and black pom poms.
It was for a schoolwide cancer treatment fundraiser Wednesday morning — or so teacher Hilary Wimmer thought. At first, it all seemed legitimate. Donation buckets were passed through the crowd and Adams 12 Superintendent Chris Gdowski got a pie in the face.
But it was a ruse. The real reason for the festivities became clear a few minutes later when a tearful Wimmer was named Colorado’s 2020 Teacher of the Year amid cheers from hundreds of her biggest fans, including her parents, husband, and three children.
The business and finance teacher was one of seven finalists for the award, which is given annually by the state education department. She’ll spend the next year serving as an ambassador of sorts for the state’s teachers and will join the education commissioner’s Teacher Cabinet, a state advisory panel of educators. She’ll also represent Colorado in the National Teacher of the Year competition.
Students described Wimmer as a role model who goes beyond the curriculum to show students how to be good friends and good people. She’s taught at Mountain Range since 2006 and leads the state’s largest chapter of DECA, a business leadership organization for high school students. In the coming year, she hopes to encourage prospective teachers to enter the profession, and advocate for financial literacy education and mental health support for students.
“I think she has this way of creating community without even realizing it,” said senior Talia Rotella, co-president of the school’s DECA chapter. “Her classroom is your safe place.”
Gdowski said when he participated in a site visit with the Teacher of the Year selection committee, he heard at least five students describe Wimmer as ”the mom of the school.”
Wimmer was moved and grateful during Wednesday’s event, which ended with a cascade of blue, white and black balloons fluttering down around her. She shared credit with her colleagues, who she said helped her get through the unexpected death of her brother earlier this year.
She finished with brief remarks to students, promising that they’d soon be released to enjoy the ice cream that came with her award.
“All of you are unique and every single one of you has very, very special gifts,” she said. “Just know this … you’re amazing. And if you ever need to realize that, come see any of your teachers.”
After the ceremony, Wimmer laughed about how the field trip she’d scheduled for Wednesday had been canceled at the last minute by one of her fellow organizers. She’d spent months arranging it and she didn’t know why her plans were derailed.
“I was so mad,” she laughed. “We were going to visit Nestle Purina so they could see advanced manufacturing.”
Her anger faded to amusement as she reveled in the opportunities she would get as teacher of the year — NASA space camp and a visit to the White House, among other perks.
“NASA? Is that a joke or is that real? I get to go to the White House and NASA?” she said. “I’m excited about that, I’m not going to lie.”
She also reflected on a special moment that had unfolded a few minutes earlier.
A girl, who Wimmer had never met until Wednesday, had approached her in tears after the ceremony to thank her for leading the school’s “Escape the Vape” campaign last year.
“You changed my life,” the teen told Wimmer. “That campaign is the reason I got off vaping.”
Contemplating the exchange, Wimmer, said, “You never know as a teacher what moment you’re going to make a difference in somebody’s life and I think that’s the most beautiful piece of teaching.”