Alison Ter Horst
Alison Ter Horst

Sioux Falls, South Dakota

Alison originally planned to become a school counselor, but she discovered her passion for the classroom as a student teacher and never left the field. She helped spearhead the Teacher Pathway program, which seeks to inspire students to become educators. And her school annually celebrates a day of kindness known as Quinncidence Day in honor of her daughter Quinn, who died in 2012. For her innovative instructional strategies, passion for teaching, and compassionate heart, Alison was selected as one of 40 national recipients of the prestigious Milken Educator Award—known as the “Oscar of Teaching”—in 2019–20.

What led you to choose Northwestern?

I had family members who went there and had such a positive experience, and whenever I visited, I loved my time there too. I had grown up in a public school, so Christ being at the center of my education was something I wanted exposure to, as well. I really desired to embrace that gift.

In what ways did you grow at Northwestern?

Northwestern was exactly what I needed at that stage of my life. The college gave me enough independence to grow and try new things and make mistakes, but enough structure and relational support to do it in a safe environment.

How well did Northwestern prepare you to become a teacher?

Northwestern has a phenomenal education program that gave me a solid foundation on which to build my teaching career. Additionally, the unparalleled relationships, service opportunities, clubs and athletics that Northwestern provided gave me the life experiences that built the framework of passion I have for teaching. The service trip to Seattle, where I looked into the eyes of battered women and children, lit a passion in me to want to serve the broken. My experience as an admissions ambassador refined my desire to be hospitable to strangers. The lifelong relationships I built prepared me to be a relational teacher. Professors, staff and friends modeled how to be a servant leader. Christ really used every aspect of my experience at Northwestern to make me the teacher I am today.

What gives you the most enjoyment about teaching?

I love it when students are intrinsically motivated to learn in my class—when they are engaged in the learning process and take joy in what they learn. Seeing them light up when they can make a personal example—or when they simply enter my room—makes me all the more determined to keep my teaching interesting.

Tell us about your experience with helping high school students consider a career in education through the Teacher Pathway program.

It really has rekindled my love and passion for teaching, because I have to tell my students my “why.” I get to go back to the basics of effective teaching one class period, then live it as a teacher the next period. It also has fueled my passion for cultural responsiveness and fighting for the students who don’t feel like they are heard.

How do you define “success” for yourself and for your students?

My ideas of success have really been evolving since my daughter Willow was born with Down syndrome. In a nutshell, I believe success in life for everyone is, first, love. Am I loving others well? As a teacher, that means building relationships and treating the students like I would want my own children to be treated. It involves giving them grace and patience. As students, it is treating your peers with respect, clothing your neighbor, sticking up for the underdog, sitting with the kid who has no one to sit with. And, second, growth. Are you better today than you were yesterday or a year ago? For my students, I don’t care if you’re at the top of the class. Are you progressing? Are you moving forward?

What are some of the ways you’ve seen God use the challenges and tragedies you’ve experienced to help others?

I believe that vulnerability shows courage. So opening your life up and giving others a glimpse of your humanity can be the most powerful icebreaker. I start my classes every year by briefly telling students of my background. I tell them, it isn’t to make you feel sorry for me, but so you know that I am human. I know what it feels like to have problems so big that school seems insignificant. I want them to leave my class with more than just textbook knowledge. I want them to leave my class knowing how to use that knowledge. I want them to see that life can give you unexpected challenges, and while you don't choose them, you can choose how you react to them.