One of the big stories in Nebraska recently was about the North Bend fifth grade teacher, Rebecca Streff, who received the Milken Education Award. What some didn’t realize is that Rebecca Votipka Streff is an Exeter native and Exeter High School alumnus.
Streff was surprised with the award during a recent school assembly. The honor, which is given to educators, was presented to only 33 teachers nationwide this year and comes with a $25,000 prize. It was created in 1987 to “inspire educators and emphasize the importance of joining the teaching profession” according to the Milken Family Foundation website.
The Foundation identifies teachers who fit their criteria including those who have had success in the classroom that usually hasn’t been publically recognized, those who are molding their teaching practices to increase the success of their students, and also teachers who are motivating their colleagues, students and community members.
The 2000 graduate of Exeter High School recalls that she “always wanted to be a teacher. I remember teaching my dolls, my little brother, even all our farm animals. I loved every minute of it. I loved kids. Once I started babysitting I had a natural magnetic pull toward children.”
Once she started school at Exeter that desire grew. She mentioned elementary teachers like Mrs. Marla Weber and Mrs. Kathy Erdkamp, “They did hands-on learning. They made me feel like I could learn anything and be anything. They made learning fun. I loved coming to school, and right away, I knew at a very young age I wanted to become a teacher.”
Her high school teachers at Exeter also inspired her, “Mrs. Judy Votipka spent so much time before and after school working with us, Mrs. Deb Fette and her sentence diagrams and even Mr. Bob Mahoney influenced me. I still use some of those strengths today. . .they had a passion for education.”
“The teachers I had knew me better than I knew myself. They saw something in me and found that strength in me. I remember Mr. Lonnie Shaffer, my teacher and track coach, saw something in me and made me run long distance. I hated it but then I started to get good and I loved it.”
And while Streff certainly credits her experiences in the Exeter district as a big part of her foundation, she recognizes that education starts at home. “I remember Dad always reading to us and helping us with our school work, Mom helping us prepare our speeches for speech or helping us with our 4H projects.”
“But I also think I wouldn’t be where I’m at today without the support of my family. Mom. Dad. Grandparents. They were and are firm believers in education and always pushed us (my brother and me) to try our hardest and do our best and encouraged us to participate in everything we could. Even today they are supportive and an active role in my life and their grandkids. And for that I’ll be forever thankful and blessed.”
Her parents, Bob and Barb Votipka and grandmother LeeAnn Votipka live just outside of Exeter.
Streff has taught at North Bend for 11 years (she taught for three years in Lincoln). Her husband, Ken, teaches social studies at North Bend High School and also serves as a councilman for the city. They have four children, Philip, 9, Isabella, 7, Julia, 5, and Kevin, 2 months old and the three oldest along with her husband were present at the assembly when she received the recognition.
The assembly had been planned while she was on maternity leave and had to be postponed because of a snowstorm. After she was recognized as a candidate her administration was contacted and they provided letters of recommendation and answered questions about Streff. “I have no idea how they found me.”
“When they said my name I had been thinking of all the teachers that could have easily earned this award.”
She is looking forward to connecting with the network of educators who have been recognized with the same honor. “This is a wonderful opportunity. . .I love learning. I am still learning myself to find the best practices for my students. . .to educate them the best that I can.”
She hasn’t made firm plans for the money yet, but she has some ideas including college funds for her kids. She also mentioned taking a trip for herself and trying to set up a scholarship fund for North Bend graduates going into education.
Streff didn’t forget to give credit to her Exeter roots, “I don’t think I would be at the place I am today if I didn’t have the support from the small community and all the extra-curricular activities I participated in. I was able to do everything, band, speech, and track. This led me to be successful at UNL and continued down my journey through education. I’m thankful for my upbringing in Exeter.”