SPANISH FORK - Every morning, Brenda Beyal leads her students in breathing and stretching exercises to relax and prepare their minds for the day.
On Monday, those special morning exercises couldn't quite prepare the Rees Elementary School teacher for what was about to happen.
In a surprise announcement by Secretary of Education Senior Adviser Norma Garza, Beyal was named Utah's No Child Left Behind 2006 American Star of Teaching, an honor awarded to only one teacher in each state every year.
"This is unbelievable to me - I'm totally shocked," said the third- and fourth-grade teacher. "I had no idea."
The surprise didn't come as a surprise to some of Beyal's closest friends.
"She's been the best teacher that I've had," said Irelyn Peterson, 10, who had Beyal for the third and fourth grades.
"Out of all the teachers in the state, that's pretty cool," added former student Jezni Widdison, 10, who also put in a plug for Beyal's homemade Indian fry bread.
Teachers gave their colleague a standing ovation, and hundreds of students clapped and cheered at the top of their lungs for their beloved Mrs. Beyal.
The teacher of 24 years has spent her entire career at Spanish Fork's Rees Elementary, working with third-, fourth- and fifth-graders.
A Navajo, who originally came from Tohatchi, N.M., Beyal also is director of Nebo School District's Artist in Residency program and a summer-school teacher with Nebo's Title VII Indian Education Program.
Program Manager Eileen Quintana said her "Navajo Indian sister" is responsible for Nebo American Indian graduation rates jumping from 37 percent in 1998 to 94 percent in 2004.
"Her enthusiasm is contagious," said Quintana, Beyal's nominator for the award. "Her love and passion for teaching children is truly a sight to see."
Quintana said Beyal's efforts also have lifted American Indian third- and fourth-grade math and reading scores from the bottom quartile to the the top quartile.
Her teaching methods have been impressive enough to be featured in a video produced by Brigham Young University.
"She has never forgotten why she has come into this business," said Rick Nielsen, Nebo director of elementary education. "What a worthy representative."
"Teachers like Beyal never give up on a child," U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings said in a news release. "They believe every child - regardless of race, income or ZIP code - can achieve high standards in school."
Also on hand for Monday's award was U.S. Rep. Chris Cannon and Utah Director of Indian Education Shirlee Silversmith.
Beyal, who lives in Mapleton with her husband, Anthony, and 8-year-old daughter, Kimberly, acknowledged she was a bit embarrassed to be caught off guard with the honor and thought it should be shared with all her co-workers.
But her colleagues said Beyal deserves to be singled out.
"I've always known since I went to college I wanted to be a teacher," Beyal said. "It's what I was meant to do."
The award's origin
The American Stars of Teaching program began in 2004 as part of the federal Teacher-to-Teacher Initiative.
Each year, a committee of former teachers at the U.S. Department of Education selects one American Star for each state. There were 4,000 nominations this year.
Past Utah winners are Jerry Mangus of Plymouth Elementary in Taylorsville, 200, and Emma Cilsante of Ogden Preparatory, 2004.
A humble Brenda Beyal wears a blanket given to her by her friend Eileen Quintana, Nebo School District's title 7 Indian Education program coordinator, after Beyal received a No Child Left Behind American Star Teacher award during assemble at Rees Elementary School in Spanish Fork Aug. 28, 2006. According to Quintana in the Navajo tradition blankets are given to leaders who perform great acts. Both Quintana and Beyal are Navajo. The US Department of Education's Norma Garza (behind) gave her the award.