The Arkansas Department of Education named a Van Buren High School teacher the 2017 Teacher of the Year on Thursday in a surprise ceremony.

Courtney Cochran, who teaches six levels of Spanish, will receive one year of paid administrative leave for professional development purposes, according to a news release. She will spend the 2017-18 school year traveling around the state learning from and teaching other teachers and serving as a non-voting member on the State Board of Education.

Cochran is excited to learn from other educators and to impact more students, she said.

“It’s a dream come true to be able to reach out to students all across the state,” she said.

This is Cochran’s 11th year teaching Spanish. She is also the sponsor for the school’s Spanish honor society, SHH, and the co-sponsor of the Partners Club.

“I feel like Spanish and world languages are the perfect complement to any subject area,” she said.

Cochran went to schools in Bryant and Benton.

“I had a teacher in the ninth grade who just opened up the world for me, and she was my Spanish teacher,” Cochran said. “I fell in love with the language and with the culture.”

Last year’s teacher of the year, Meghan Ables, teaches 11th grade English and journalism at Stuttgart High School. Although she does not have a vote on the State Board of Education, the board asks for her input, a teacher’s perspective, she said. She has also attended conferences all over the country learning how to make a difference in education policies at the state level and has worked with the Department of Education’s communication department. She said that the Van Buren School District will be stronger from what it learns from Cochran when she returns after a year.

Roughly three weeks ago when the selection committee members had narrowed the applicants down to four teachers, they interviewed the teachers and their principals and watched the teachers in action.

When Ables stepped into Cochran’s classroom, she found no desks or chairs, she said. Instead, she found students on their feet, doing group activities and singing songs.

“She talks in Spanish the whole time. I mean, they are submerged in that language,” Ables said.

The students were able to carry on conversations in Spanish well for a Level 1 course, she said.

“Her classroom was warm, welcoming,” Ables said. “The kids felt safe. They were not scared to take risks when saying something wrong.”

Most teachers worry about their students learning, Ables said, but Cochran takes that to another level.

“She wants foreign language to be a focus for all of the state of Arkansas ... she’s already gone to the governor and talked to him about a biliteracy seal,” Ables said.

District Superintendent Harold Jeffcoat was notified about a week ago that Cochran had been named teacher of the year, and everyone was careful not to let her in on the news while planning the assembly, he said. The honor is not only a testament to Cochran’s work, but to the quality of education at Van Buren, he said.

Cochran teaches free Spanish lessons to elementary students. She has taught a free summer Spanish camp for English language learners and free adult Spanish classes at the high school and has lent her translation services to migrant families in the school district, according to the news release.

“She provides programs for elementary kids, and these are things she does on her own. It’s not something that we initiate or request that she do. She just has a heart for kids, and it shows in the classroom,” Jeffcoat said.

Throughout the process, Cochran won $15,000 from the Walton Family Foundation. She won $1,000 as a regional finalist and $14,000 as the winner, according to the news release. Cochran was one of 14 regional finalists in the state for Teacher of the Year.