Northfield High School teacher Sarah Swan McDonald is representing the district as one of 132 candidates for Minnesota Teacher of the Year.
Nominees range from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade, adult basic education teachers from both public and private schools. A 25-member panel of community leaders will continue to narrow down the group to semifinalists and finalists until results are announced in May, according to Education Minnesota.
Swan McDonald, however, said she is uncomfortable with the title, not wanting to detract from the “incredible professionals” she is is surrounded by and that make her job possible. She added that it’s more of an ambassadorship.
“It makes it sound like I do something unique or special that hundreds of teachers are not doing,” Swan McDonald. “I’m only as good as the people around me.”
Swan McDonald has spent all but two of her 18 years of teaching in Northfield and said she was touched that someone she respects and admires as a teacher, Kevin Dahle, took the time to nominate her.
Dahle said that she’s always been very collaborative, generous with lesson plans and teaching philosophy and takes on new challenges, like the global studies program.
“I just like the fact that she’s willing to try new things and keeping her teaching fresh,” Dahle said. “She’s too modest to think it’s all about her.”
Dahle added that she is really passionate about having students take what they learn in social studies and applying it to their community and the country.
“We as teacher want to make sure what we are teaching is relevant but she, I think, goes the extra step,” Dahle said.
With English Language teacher and Northfield’s 2016 Teacher of the Year Jennifer Lompart, her mostly Latino students and Swan McDonald’s mostly white global studies students have come together to discuss immigration for the past four years.
It’s become a chance for first-generation American students and multi-generation American students to exchange immigration stories linked to migration curriculum of Swan McDonald’s class.
Global studies students also have the chance to ask questions they wouldn’t answer, some that may touch on stereotypes. Sometimes, the questions have had the potential to be explosive.
“One of my students said, ‘I have everything I want, my parents just bought me a car, I live in a really nice house ... I want to know if you hate me,’” Swan McDonald said. “It was one of those moments as a teacher you’re really terrified, like really scared of what’s going to come out − and it was so beautiful.”
The response was understanding − that her parents want what’s best for her, that they work really hard and deserve these things, the teachers said. In class reflections, global studies students seemed surprised that the EL students missed their home country as much as they did, that they weren’t here to strike it rich.
Sometime after, a group of students get the chance to know each other over dinner. Swan McDonald and Lompart have also arranged a dinner in the same vein for teachers and want to provide more opportunities like this for the broader community.
“One thing that the whole activity did was reaffirm that everyone is more or less the same − we all want love and a place to fit in,” global studies student Olaf Sorenson said. “It brings a lot of humility and, I think, compassion.”
Superintendent Matt Hillmann praised Swan McDonald’s commitment to all aspects of a student, working toward their social and emotional growth as well as academic. He added that “she’s a great role model for other educators.”
“She’s a great representative and ambassador for the Northfield Public Schools,” Hillmann said. “She’s a person who I have great faith in the ability to look at the whole child.”
Scott Noet, a Faribault resident who has been teaching social studies at Owatonna’s junior high school for the past two decades, has also been named a finalist.
The 2017 Minnesota Teacher of the Year will be announced May 7 at the Radisson Blu Mall of America in Bloomington. This year’s winner will be the 53rd Minnesota Teacher of the Year.
Owatonna People’s Press reporter Ryan Anderson contributed to this report.