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Getting to Know Our 2019 Minnesota Teacher of the Year Semifinalists

Posted by Saint Paul Public Schools on March 7, 2019

Five SPPS teachers are vying for an award that celebrates the tradition of excellence in teaching in Minnesota. Here is a look at the SPPS semifinalists for this year's Education Minnesota award.

Bernetta Green

Bernetta Green - 5th Grade Teacher
Eastern Heights Elementary

For how long -- and at which  schools -- have you worked as an educator in Saint Paul?
I have spent my entire 20 years of teaching at Eastern Heights Elementary School.

Why did you want to become a teacher?
As a student in Saint Paul Public Schools, I was blessed to have a plethora of wonderful educators and role models in my life. One teacher that inspired me to become an educator was my sixth grade teacher, Mrs. Babcook. She was compassionate and taught me how to be dedicated to my education.

What’s the best part of your job?
The best part of my job is building lasting relationships with students and watching them learn.

What’s the biggest challenge?
My biggest challenge is keeping all of my students engaged and motivated to learn the content that I teach.

If you weren’t a teacher, what profession would you choose?
If the profession of teaching did not call upon me, I would be crunching numbers (accountant) in an office or telling jokes (comedian) on a stage.

What does being nominated for Minnesota Teacher of the Year mean to you?
Being nominated for Minnesota Teacher of the Year is an honor to me. It means that someone thinks highly of me as educator and wants to share it with others.

Eric Erickson

Eric Erickson - Social Studies Teacher
Como Park High School

For how long -- and at which schools -- have you worked as an educator in Saint Paul?
I’ve been teaching in Saint Paul for 24 years. My first five years were at Washington Technology Magnet when it was a middle school. I taught 8th grade Geography, and coached girls’ soccer and girls’ basketball. I loved it.

I knew I wanted to eventually teach and coach in a high school. The timing was right in 2000 when I started at Como Park Senior High School. It’s been 19 years now and my enthusiasm for everything about Como is still as strong as ever. I teach AP Government and Politics, AP Economics, and U.S. History. I’ve coached in the boys’ basketball program, girls’ soccer program, and led the boys’ soccer program for 10 years. I love Como and I do as much as I can to support our kids and community. I’m proud to promote the good stuff we all do.

Why did you want to become a teacher?
I became a teacher because of positive adults who helped me. I had teachers and coaches who I respected because they supported me while challenging me to improve. And they seemed, for the most part, to enjoy the work they were doing! Those teachers and coaches obviously impacted hundreds of other students, too. I thought trying to help kids grow seemed like important and potentially rewarding work, so I pursued a career in it. It was a good decision and I’m grateful to be an educator.

What’s the best part of your job?
The best part of the job….. tough call. I’ll say “moments.” There are moments of unexpected greatness. Sometimes it’s the kid who comes in for after-school help, starts to understand the concept, gains confidence and says thank you. Sometimes it’s the quiet student who ends up bonding with classmates and producing creative work when they’re paired together for a presentation. Sometimes it’s an auditorium of cheers for the members of the introductory tenor/bass choir who are fearlessly singing the best they can. Sometimes it’s the smiles and hugs of teammates on the field after an elusive victory. Those moments inspire us, reward us and remind us why we teach.

What’s the biggest challenge?
Meeting every need is the most challenging part of the job. As a teacher, you want to have a relationship with every student you teach. That’s 175 student relationships to build and maintain for many high school and middle school teachers. That’s 175 unique individuals and needs. Every student deserves our attention, support, interaction, feedback, encouragement, communication and more. It’s challenging and frustrating that our classes are so large, because we can’t always provide what every individual student deserves. There’s not enough time in the day to consistently support the needs of all our students. There’s always something more we could do and want to do to help our students make gains and reach another level, but we don’t have the human resources to do it.

If you weren’t a teacher, what profession would you choose?
If I wasn’t a full-time teacher, I might try to go the full-time coaching route at the collegiate level. But since teaching is coaching, and coaching is teaching, it’s not that much of a professional departure. If I had to go outside of education, I’d go into broadcasting and journalism. In the last five years, I’ve been writing for local community newspapers and have been announcing Como and SPPS games. Covering those events and helping share the positive energy with the larger community is fun.

What does being nominated for Minnesota Teacher of the Year mean to you?
I had mixed feelings about being nominated. We have so many dedicated, creative, talented, resilient teachers at Como and throughout SPPS. I’m frequently in awe of my colleagues and their expertise. As a coach, I never liked individual awards. But I’ve come to realize that the purpose of this whole process is to highlight and showcase unique aspects of our collective work that we don’t always take the time to appreciate and celebrate. So, I’m humbled, motivated and inspired by the nomination, and glad that it says Como Park Senior High School and SPPS by my name.

Molly Keenan

Molly Keenan - Social Studies Teacher
Harding Senior High School

For how long -- and at which schools -- have you worked as an educator in Saint Paul?
I started teaching in 2002 and I have been a teacher at Harding Senior High School in since 2012.

Why did you want to become a teacher?
I really struggled to be engaged in school as an adolescent, and I credit a few teachers at Central High School in the ‘90s for keeping me interested and invested in school each day. I knew I could be one of those teachers for students like me, and that motivated me a lot.

What’s the best part of your job?
I love social studies, and I believe in its power. Teaching students about the people and stories that shape our world is a really crucial job. The only way to have an active, engaged population is for people to feel connected to the past, to be present in the present and to be able to imagine affecting change and shaping the future. Cultivating that is my job, and I love it. This is possible because of my relationship with students. I am not just “teaching them content,” I am establishing connections with them and nurturing those connections. I care for my students before I care for an assignment or assessment. In the process, we learn together, laugh, find inspiration, build academic skills by questioning our assumptions, discover radical perspectives, interpret sources and create history ourselves.

What’s the biggest challenge?
The biggest challenge is keeping some kind of balance in my life. I work very hard outside of school to learn about my own limits, tendencies and capacities. I have to be very mindful of prioritizing self-care, spending time with my family and exploring creative outlets for myself. When I don’t stay mindful of the impact teaching has on my life, I get out of balance, which doesn’t serve anyone well. Teaching can take all one has to give, and sometimes it does. Over the past 17 years, I have learned many lessons about this.

If you weren’t a teacher, what profession would you choose?
I’d choose to work in the performing or visual arts, or in social justice or community development. I need to feel a sense of purpose, service and relationship to others to feel grounded in my work.

If you are named Minnesota Teacher of the Year, what would be your message?
I would want to talk about what investing in our schools would look like, and find out what it looks like to constituents throughout the state. I think that if we understood one another's priorities, we would see how many unmet needs there are and how we are all responsible to meet those needs for all of the young people throughout our state.

Benjamin Lathrop

Benjamin Lathrop - English Teacher
Harding Senior High School

For how long -- and at which schools -- have you worked as an educator in Saint Paul?
I have worked in Saint Paul for almost 10 years, since August 2008 -- all of that time at Harding Senior High School.

Why did you want to become a teacher?
That's a complicated question. All of the usual reasons, I suppose: I wanted to make a difference; wanted to share my knowledge and experience; and wanted to put my gifts to good use. For quite some time during college, I didn't want to be a teacher. I dropped out of education after my freshman year. After college I worked as a journalist, but found myself involved in various ways in education -- covering it for the newspaper, teaching piano lessons, teaching Sunday school. Ultimately I couldn't resist the call. Partly, I think, I wanted to prove to myself that I could successfully engage in what I believed--and still believe--is a noble profession.

What’s the best part of your job?
Like most teachers, I'm in it for the students. They are the best part of my job. I have fantastic students who are smart, creative and kind. I also have wonderful colleagues. Apart from the people aspect, I really enjoy planning units, lessons and writing assessments.

What’s the biggest challenge?
Keeping up with all the grading, finding time to give meaningful feedback and finding ways to differentiate lessons? learning? are all equally formidable challenges.

If you weren’t a teacher, what profession would you choose?
I've been a journalist, and I really liked it, so I might choose that. Or I might go into law. Less realistically, I would be a novelist or a writer and movie director.

What does being nominated for Minnesota Teacher of the Year mean to you?
Just being nominated really means a lot to me because of the person who nominated me. He is someone I admire a lot, both as a teacher and as a person. He has been a mentor to me ever since I started teaching at Harding. He has been a finalist for Minnesota Teacher of the Year twice, and for him to see me as a viable candidate is really validating.

Eugenia Popa

Eugenia Popa - ESL Teacher
Harding Senior High School

For how long -- and at which schools -- have you worked as an educator in Saint Paul?
I have been an educator for 36 years, out of which 23 have been in Saint Paul. I taught for 10 years at Parkway Elementary, Farnsworth Lower for nine years, and for the past four years I have been at Harding Senior High School. Prior to coming to the United States, I taught in Romania, where I am originally from, and in the United Kingdom. This summer I will be teaching in Poland.

Why did you want to become a teacher?
Back in my home country, Romania, a teaching career was a secure, highly respected and admired profession. As a student, I had amazing teachers whom I revered. I believe this was the perfect fit for me because working with children gives me energy, happiness and youth. I love teaching English Learners (EL) as they remind me of my own struggles as a newcomer trying to adjust to a new language and culture.

What’s the best part of your job?
Listening to my students’ stories and connecting with them on a personal level. I enjoy attending their concerts, sports competitions, ethnic celebrations and joining them on extended learning field trips. Knowing that I can be a resource and provide guidance for them gives my work a purpose and challenges me to constantly better myself.

What’s the biggest challenge?
The biggest challenge for me is trying to juggle the multiple interests and commitments I have personally and professionally, while maintaining  balance and sanity in my life. I am very active and a perfectionist by nature, so I have to remember to slow down once in a while to take care of myself, in order to take care of those around me.

If you weren’t a teacher, what profession would you choose?
I would have loved to travel around the world to write about the places I visited and the people I met along the way. I am an avid traveler and learn best through first-hand experiences. I believe that exploring different cultures is the best way to understand how beautifully different, yet so much alike, we are.

What does being nominated for Minnesota Teacher of the Year mean to you?
It is an incredible honor to be recognized among so many outstanding educators in our schools, our district and our state. I am overwhelmed and deeply humbled. I have been very fortunate throughout my career to have met and learned from so many of my colleagues. I would not be able to do my job without the support of my strong EL team, my co-teachers, administration, counselors, social workers, nurses and everyone else at Harding Senior High School -- my second home.