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Getting to Know Our Minnesota Teacher of the Year Semifinalists

Saint Paul has a wide range of educators in the running for the 2017 Minnesota Teacher of the Year award.

From montessori to language immersion and elementary to high school, seven SPPS teachers are vying for this year’s award, given by Education Minnesota, that celebrates the tradition of excellence in teaching in Minnesota.

The finalists will be announced in April, with the winner being named Teacher of the Year in May.

Here is a look at the seven SPPS semifinalists for the award:

 
John Horton

John Horton

How long have you worked for SPPS and at which schools?

I have been working in SPPS for the past three years at J.J. Hill Montessori.


Why did you want to become a teacher?

I am a proud product of SPPS and had amazing teachers throughout my educational journey. I knew that I wanted to become a teacher since elementary school and have been lucky enough to pursue my dream. I knew I wanted to work with children and help them build confidence and foster a love of learning.


What’s the best part of your job?

My favorite part of the job is working with families and my colleagues. Our work together is important and has been the highlight of my educational career. From visiting families and children at sporting events and plays to calling or emailing positive notes home, the work with children and families has been fulfilling. The talented teams of individuals that I have worked with over my career, and especially at J.J. Hill, have been amazing. I'm inspired and amazed by the wonderful people we have working here in our schools.


What’s the biggest challenge?

We know that teamwork and collaboration are very important parts of our work, but we lack the time necessary to accomplish this. I believe we need more time to work together and have constructive conversations about the work we do on a daily basis and plans to meet building and district goals. As educators in the classroom, we are tasked with the monumental work of educating children, balancing the needs of families, completing work required for the daily operations of the classroom, and meeting district expectations.


What is the most important thing your students have taught you?

Every day they teach me to show kindness and compassion toward others. While there are different approaches to education, I believe the goals are the same: To fulfill the hope and promise we see in our children. Teaching our scholars to help a friend is a very important part of the work in our Montessori school -- whether that is encouraging students to help a friend clean up something they dropped to playing a game with a new partner. The kindness and compassion of children is there... we just need to give them the opportunity to show it.


If you weren’t a teacher, what profession would you choose?

I was a grocery store employee at Widmer Super Market in Saint Paul during high school and college. I loved the people and the work, and if I wasn't a teacher I suppose I would enjoy working at a small "Mom and Pop" store here in the city.


What does being nominated for Minnesota Teacher of the Year mean to you?

I feel this honor is a recognition of all those that have worked with me over the years. The support staff, teachers, families and children all share the this honor with me. The work we have done to help and support children is incredibly important and we couldn't have done it alone. It also means a lot to share this honor with another Montessori teacher, Eileen Zachman. To have two Montessori teachers as semifinalists is both thrilling and important to the wonderful programs in our schools.

 
Michael Houston

Michael Houston

How long have you worked for SPPS and at which schools?

I am in my 13th year of teaching at Harding High School.


Why did you want to become a teacher?

I decided to become a teacher because some of the most impactful people in my life have been both teachers and coaches. In college, one of my professors -- who is also my mentor -- always expressed such joy while in the classroom. His ability to create a community within the classroom, while also sharing his passion about the subject, influenced me to consider teaching as a profession. Now, 13 years later, I am glad that I chose this profession.


What’s the best part of your job?

Personally, the best part of my job is building great relationships with my students. I look forward to learning their personalities, understanding what drives them, hearing their individual stories and their laughter, and helping them comprehend math concepts.


What’s the biggest challenge?

The biggest challenge is not being able to connect with every student that I have. Whether it's finding a mutual interest including through sports, similar personality traits, interjecting humor within the classroom to provoke a smile, or other ways, it's rather unsettling to not find something to draw a student in.


What is the most important thing your students have taught you?

Probably that it isn't the end of the world if the entire class time isn't devoted to content, and that some of the class time is used to try to connect with them. Our students have a hard time trusting adults and building a strong teacher-student relationship gets them to open up, build trust and ultimately promotes learning in the classroom.


If you weren’t a teacher, what profession would you choose?

If I was not a teacher, I would probably be working as an accountant.


What does being nominated for Minnesota Teacher of the Year mean to you?

For me, it has been tremendously humbling. Being recognized for such an honor has made me more reflective of my teaching practices over the years.

 
Holly Johnston

Holly Johnston

How long have you worked for SPPS and at which schools?

I have worked in SPPS for 24 years. I spent a year working as a substitute in all elementary grades throughout the district. I have been in my current position as a kindergarten teacher at Phalen Lake Hmong Studies Magnet for 23 years.


Why did you become a teacher?

I became a teacher because I had some wonderful teachers as a child who really inspired -- and left an impression -- on me. I started working with young children early in life as a Girl Scout and found great satisfaction in helping young people learn new skills.


What's the best part of your job?

I love that I can see the joy in my students' faces when they understand something or feel pride in their work. I am excited to be a part of the growth I see happening. Kindergarten students make amazing growth in a year's time. Also, I like to make a difference. I have had former students contact me to say thanks for being a part of their lives. If they still remember their kindergarten teacher into adulthood, I know that I made an impression -- and that is a neat feeling.


What's the biggest challenge?

I sometimes feel frustrated when the extent of what I can do to help only goes so far. Whether it is the student who has a lot of attendance issues, or they have moved between several schools, or they have a lack of sleep, or something dramatic happened at home, I have the power to be a calming presence in their lives. However, whatever happened can affect the whole day for them. If it is an ongoing issue, it makes my job especially challenging.


What is the most important thing your students have taught you?

My students have taught me numerous things - the importance of relationships, kindness, helping others, hope, hard work, growth, perseverance, cooperation and learning from--and about--each other.


If you weren't a teacher, what profession would you choose?

I would have been a librarian because I have a great love of books.


What does being nominated for Minnesota Teacher of the Year mean to you?

It has been an absolute thrill and honor. It is wonderful to be recognized for the hard work and dedication that I feel I have shown. On the other hand, I know an incredible number of equally hardworking colleagues that would be deserving of this honor.

 
Mark Westpfahl

Mark Westpfahl

How long have you worked for SPPS and at which schools?

This is my 8th year in SPPS and my 4th year at Capitol Hill Gifted and Talented Magnet School. I was previously at American Indian Magnet School and Battle Creek Middle School.


Why did you want to become a teacher?

I debated entering education or graphic design as I finished high school, but when I wasn't accepted into UW-La Crosse, I thought I was destined to do the latter at Western Technical College. After working as a graphic designer for several years, the economy experienced a downturn and I was laid off. I had been coaching high school football and several of my players convinced me that I needed to follow the advice I always gave them - work hard to make your dreams and passion a reality. I thought I would be a hypocrite if I didn't put my own words into practice, so I started my journey to becoming a teacher.


What’s the best part of your job?

There are so many amazing things about being a teacher that it is hard to narrow it down to just one thing. One of the best parts is seeing students achieve at levels that they previously didn't think they could. You know you have an impact when students come to your classroom early, send you emails, or stop in your classroom out of the blue, just to reflect on a moment when you made them feel they could conquer anything.


What’s the biggest challenge?

Time. As many hours as you invest in planning to make sure students have a tremendous experience, time always seems to run faster than you want. This can make it challenging to build connections with students and relationships that last beyond the class period. I don't always feel as though I do a good enough job connecting with all of my students because we are pulled in numerous different directions which often takes us away from the real reason we are educators: to connect with students and inspire them to reach higher potentials.


What is the most important thing your students have taught you?

Students want to know what you are providing them has relevance. They want you to connect your lessons and activities to real life. They want you to connect things to their interests, their fascinations and even their struggles. When you do that, they are more likely to stay engaged, because they know they have a safe place to explore, fail and eventually succeed.


If you weren’t a teacher, what profession would you choose?

If I was not a teacher, I would likely pursue a career with the National Park Service as an interpretive guide, or even as a tour director for a travel company. I am enchanted by history and the connections that it has with the built and physical landscape around us. I love leading and working with people, analyzing different things and hypothesizing different solutions.


What does being nominated for Minnesota Teacher of the Year mean to you?

Being nominated by current and former students, families and community members is a tremendous honor. It validates the countless hours I put in and the sacrifices I have made in an effort to give my students the best educational experiences and opportunities. It's a testament to the students that have trusted and believed in me throughout my career; as well as the teachers, colleagues and mentors who invested their time in me, to ensure that I would inspire my students and provide them with opportunities in and outside of the classroom.

 
Carole Whitney

Carole Whitney

How long have you worked for SPPS and at which schools?

I started working at Como Park in the 1994-95 school year. I have only worked at Como, where there had been no choral program. After getting the program going, I got attached to my students and stayed.


Why did you want to become a teacher?

I wanted to make a difference in the lives of kids and never be bored -- teaching music gave me both. There is so much great music, I never have to teach the same song twice (unless I want to, of course). The music brings my students to places they haven't experienced , whether exploring other cultures or exploring emotions.


What’s the best part of your job?

This is difficult to decide. Sometimes it's when I finally get eye contact and a smile from a quiet, shy student. Sometimes it is when there is a musical discovery and advancement in skill. The best part of my job is always the fact that I get to know lots of my students for through multiple years in advancing levels of choir. The relationships we develop are priceless.


What’s the biggest challenge?

Scheduling within the building is always a challenge. Many students who want to take choir have to choose between singing and the only section of an Advanced Placement class they also need. It's frustrating for all. The other significant challenge my students and I face is the inconsistent presence of vocal music in elementary and middle schools. It means that they have to gain multiple years of skill within a short time to arrive at a skill level competitive for college.


What is the most important thing your students have taught you?

To never give up on them, even if they can't complete their education in the societally-prescribed four years. To never give up on them, even if they seem to have no desire to excel or even attend school.


If you weren’t a teacher, what profession would you choose?

I didn't go to college until my mid-30s and had a difficult time choosing between early childhood education, architecture and entomology (yes, the study of bugs).


What does being nominated for Minnesota Teacher of the Year mean to you?

I am so honored that someone feels I make a difference in the lives of children. It is validation of the work we all do as teachers and I wish I could share it with every one of my colleagues.

 
Ong Xiong

Ong Xiong

How long have you worked for SPPS and at which schools?

This is my 7th year at Phalen Lake. Overall, this is my 20th year teaching. I first started teaching at a charter school on the East Side of Saint Paul called A.C.O.R.N. Dual Language Academy (now called Achieve Language Academy). Phalen Lake Hmong Studies Magnet is the first school in SPPS that I have taught at.


Why did you want to become a teacher?

I have always enjoyed kids. I knew I had a lot of patience when dealing with children. I grew up with no Hmong classroom teachers and thought I could change that image.


What’s the best part of your job?

I really enjoy teaching the Hmong Immersion classroom because it is a personal journey for me and my people. The Hmong language is an endangered language and I want to be a part of trying to preserve it. My energy in teaching is driven by my passion to preserve my culture and language. It is definitely a personal endeavor.


What’s the biggest challenge?

The biggest challenge for me in my current position as a kindergarten Hmong immersion teacher is trying to create materials to supplement my teaching due to the lack of Hmong materials and resources available.


What is the most important thing your students have taught you?

My students have taught me many things over the years. The things that keep reoccurring is that my students are smart, capable and want to belong. I try my best to facilitate and create an environment where they can apply who they are, what they can do, and know that they belong.


If you weren’t a teacher, what profession would you choose?

I would probably choose to be in a profession that also works with children. I can see myself as a social worker or a physician.


What does being nominated for Minnesota Teacher of the Year mean to you?

This nomination means a lot to me. It is a great feeling to be acknowledged by my colleagues. It is a humbling experience being that I am surrounded by so many exceptional teachers here at Phalen Lake.

 
Eileen Zachman

Eileen Zachman

How long have you worked for SPPS and at which schools?

I have been a Montessori teacher of four and five year olds for 31 years. I worked for three years at St. Catherine’s Montessori Lab School and 28 years with the Montessori program at JJ Hill Montessori.


Why did you want to become a teacher?

The positive energy and the creative spirit of the young mind has always intrigued me. I

wanted to be part of channeling that energy.


What’s the best part of your job?

The best part of my job are the close connections with my students and their families. The energy from these relationships keeps me motivated and enthusiastic about my role as their first educational guide. Strong and positive relationships with families promotes mutual care and respect, allowing us to work together, providing students with the best possible educational experience.


What’s the biggest challenge?

The biggest challenge exists when academic expectations do not align with students’ social, emotional and academic developmental stages. To be a successful teacher who uses the differentiated learning approach, I need to understand my students’ cultural backgrounds and family perspectives on education. This is a challenge I enjoy, as it brings me closer to my families and gives me a broader outlook on humanity.


What is the most important thing your students have taught you?

My students have taught me to enjoy the little things in life, the simple pleasures with a positive perspective. I have learned to see the world through the eyes of a child -- with enthusiasm and energy and a fresh outlook.


If you weren’t a teacher, what profession would you choose?

The world of dance and music makes me happy. I have an opportunity in the classroom to express my creativity through projects I develop for my students. If I weren’t a teacher, I would love to express my creativity through movement and dance. Be it a dance instructor or a professional dancer, movement and music provide an outlet for physical activity and creative expression, values that are important to me. I always want to hear the music!


What does being nominated for Minnesota Teacher of the Year mean to you?

Words cannot describe how gratifying it is to be acknowledged for the traits I have always strived to portray in my many years with young children. The letters of recommendation consistently acknowledge kindness, respect and humility, the qualities I try to practice daily.



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