Etta Rassier has a singular approach to teaching literacy skills to her Brooklyn Park preschoolers — she has them role-play.

Rassier, a teacher at Fair Oaks Elementary School, used grant money from the Kids In Need Foundation to buy costumes and props that reflected the cultural heritages represented in her class. During role-playing, the students use writing, reading and math skills to run the shop: "That's how you get them excited for math and reading."

Last week, Rassier was honored for her project, called Learning Through Dramatic Play, as the foundation's National Teacher of the Year — an honor no other teacher in Minnesota has received.

The organization, which provides free school supplies to students in need, also honored a teacher in Florida.

Thanks to astute planning by school officials, Rassier was surprised with the award on Aug. 26 during what was supposed to be a normal back-to-school staff meeting. Rassier's eyes widened and her jaw dropped when Dave Smith, executive director of the foundation, surprised her with the recognition. The pre-K teacher rose and accepted the award to a room full of colleagues standing and cheering.

"I had no clue — it was supposed to be a workshop day," Rassier said. "I was shocked. I was totally surprised."

The presentation also surprised many of the teachers and staff members who were present for the morning meeting.

Principal Phillip Sadler asked kindergarten teacher Michelle Kennedy and second-grade teacher Candace Johnson to talk about how they had benefited from the foundation before the announcement. Neither knew that one of their own was about to be surprised with the award.

Kennedy, who has worked with Rassier for seven years, said she can see a big difference between students who had Rassier and those who didn't.

"I wish there were four Ettas" to directly feed into every kindergarten class, she said.

Rassier began teaching eight years ago, late in life, she said. Six of those years have been spent at Fair Oaks, which is in the Osseo School District.

As her own children went through the public school system, Rassier volunteered at their schools. She eventually got a job with their school district, while going to graduate school on the weekends to be a teacher.

"I just knew that's what I wanted to do," she said.

'No one ... more deserving'

This summer, Rassier volunteered at the foundation unloading boxes of school supplies. Sadler told a story to the room about being surprised to see Rassier in a semi passing large boxes to a line of volunteers. "I start grabbing boxes, and all of a sudden I look up and there is little Ms. Etta," Sadler said.

As Teacher of the Year, Rassier will be recognized with another teacher from Florida at the Kids In Need's gala in September. She also will be presented with a $500 check for personal use. Fair Oaks Elementary was also awarded with a $500 Staples gift card for school supplies.

"Of course it's Etta. No one else is more deserving," Kennedy said. "She is such a silent leader at our school. She is maybe not somebody who would throw her hat in the ring to get recognized, so for her to be thrust out there was awesome."