Kevin Cicero was caught completely off guard when the Golden Apple prize committee showed up at Boulder Elementary School on Thursday.
"I was told it was another teacher," he said.
Instead, the committee recognized Cicero during a schoolwide assembly that morning with the elementary school teaching Golden Apple Award.
By the time he showed up for the Golden Apple luncheon at Stockman Bank downtown, he was still processing what happened and thinking of the teachers with whom he's closely worked.
"You don't become a Golden Apple recipient unless you've been surrounded by master teachers," he said.
The Golden Apple prize committee spent Thursday morning visiting schools and handing out awards to teachers and school support staff, recognized as the best in Billings this year.
Golden Apple awards are given each year to two elementary school teachers, one middle and one high school teacher, a school specialist or administrator and one support professional.
Community members, parents and students nominate teachers in the greater Billings area, explaining why they think their particular educator exemplifies excellence in education. A committee of volunteers then selects the winners, who were informed Wednesday morning of their awards.
This year's recipients are Skyview High head custodian Jim Miller; Skyview High counselor Tina Boone; Independent Elementary School special education teacher Susan Vermette; Riverside Middle School teacher Jan Besel; Cicero at Boulder and West High teacher Darcy Conway.
At Independent School, Vermette's name was called out during a band assembly. She placed a hand on her chest and blinked back tears as she walked to the microphone.
"Thank you," she said. "I have loved what I've done for the last 32 years."
Independent, which feeds into School District 2, sits just a few miles east of Billings. Superintendent Bill Laurent has worked with Vermette for years and said she could have been a Golden Apple recipient any one of those years.
"She's been my inspiration," he said. "She is a gem."
"Her connection with the kids and the parents," said Principal Sheila Chouinard. "She's just that safe person."
For the first time this year, the Golden Apple committee gave out what it's named the Champions of Education award.
The award went to Jim and Heidi Duncan in recognition of their work to help SD2's $122 million bond pass with Billings voters last November. The Duncans chaired the Yes For Kids campaign.
Along with the Golden Apples, the Billings Education Association named its Teacher of the Year and Friend of Education Award on Thursday morning.
Lewis and Clark science teacher Shirley Greene was named Teacher of the Year.
The Friend of Education Award was given to Mary Johnson, a community volunteer at Bench Elementary School. Johnson, a retired educator, buys supplies for students and creates games for students to help increase their literacy skills.
The Golden Apples program is run by the Billings Chamber of Commerce and the Billings Education Association and is conducted by volunteers. Each winner receives $500, money donated by the community.