When she heard the news, Mary Ellen Dannenberg cried and told everyone she didn’t deserve the recognition.

The nonprofit Partners in Education had just announced Dannenberg as one of its Teachers Who Inspire during a student assembly Monday at the Nye Early Childhood Center, where she teaches prekindergarten classes for 4- and 5-year-olds.

“No,” she said, fighting back the tears as her students and colleagues applauded. “Everybody at this school deserves it.”

Later, serving midmorning snacks to her young charges in her classroom, she reflected on the award and what it means to her.

“I’ve seen other teachers get this, teachers I look up to, and it doesn’t make sense that I would,” she said. “I’m shocked. In my mind, it means I have to work harder.”

Teachers Who Inspire are nominated by their colleagues or principals. Partners in Education usually surprises the recipients with the news during a school assembly, as was the case with Dannenberg. She was nominated for her ability to connect with each one of her children individually and her success in drawing the children’s parents into the school system.

Dannenberg received her teaching certificate from Arizona State University. After working in Arizona schools for three years, she took some time off to have three children with her husband, David.

She started working in the Santa Fe Public Schools system 10 years ago, and has spent seven of those years at the Nye Early Childhood Center. It serves about 220 children.

She had a ready response when asked about the best part of her job.

“The little guys, this age group, the classes. We teach so much more than the academics. We teach social skills, play, working as a team. … We know how important this school is to the community. It’s a family project. These families are committed to us, so we are committed to them.”

Her students are just as enthusiastic about Dannenberg.

“She’s always the best teacher ever,” said one 5-year-old girl. “She always lets us do stuff,” said a boy sitting nearby. “She plays with us and helps us with our problems,” said another boy, who was eating applesauce.

Pre-K, Dannenberg said, teaches students how to interact with others. Many of her students come from homes where they don’t experience that connection, she said.

“They often don’t come with those skills — how to share, how to relate,” she said. “They need to be resilient to be successful in school. Here they learn skills to be resilient … to learn what’s going on in their world.”

Dannenberg is the fourth of six teachers that Partners in Education is honoring this year. Two more teachers will be named as Teachers Who Inspire sometime in the next two weeks. The award comes with a $1,200 check and a plaque.

Contact Robert Nott at 505-986-3021 or rnott@sfnewmexican.com.

Correction: A photo caption accompanying this story has been amended to reflect the following correction. An earlier version of the caption misspelled Joan Shandler's last name as Schandler.