ST. PAUL (WCCO) — As a new school year approaches, Education Minnesota is honoring teachers who helped lead the way during one unlike any before.

Natalia Benjamin was named 2021 Minnesota Teacher of the Year. She teaches English and Ethnic Studies at Century High School in Rochester. Nine teachers were nominated for the award this year.

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Jeff Wagner sat down with some of the nominees to talk about their struggles, triumphs and lessons learned from teaching in a pandemic.

They are nine teachers from nine schools with nine teaching styles, likely all reflecting on a year they could have never imagined.

(credit: CBS)

“It’s been difficult but it has been extremely rewarding,” said France Roberts, first grade teacher at Meadow Ridge Elementary in Wayzata.

To deny the challenges of distance learning, amidst a pandemic and social reckoning, would then deny the satisfaction of the successes from navigating such an unprecedented time.

“Students can go so much further than we imagine,” said Todd Hunter, science teacher at Anoka High School. He created the school’s STEAM Program, which incorporates science, technology, engineering, arts, and math.

“Every time I tried something that we did in class normally and we adapted it for at home, it was phenomenal to see where students took that and how creative and amazing the things that they came up with and the learning that was happening because of the recesses that they went through,” he said.

Having to interact digitally created a deeper appreciation for in-person connection for Roberts.

“I really missed that ability to just reach out and say, ‘How are you doing? Do you have any questions?’ And being together, that sense of not just community but proximity,” said Roberts.

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Working with students just 6 or 7 years old, he said he recognized the importance of making them feel comfortable and supported before just diving into the curriculum.

“I think that truly has to be the base of the start of the school year,” Roberts said.

It was a learning process for everyone involved, such that the curriculum for Osseo High School social studies teacher Jessica Stewart is forever changed.

“Really just throwing away everything that I had learned and really being ‘What is best for this scholar?’ and whatever is best for you, I’m gonna do that because that’s what we do,” she said.

That tailored approach for each student became something she not only preferred, but wanted to expand upon. Instead of returning to her traditional classroom environment, Stewart will help lead the Osseo Area Schools’ new 100% online learning K-12 school called “279Online.”

“I found out I am normally really good a building relationships and then during online it was like, I’m still doing this. My scholars are still showing up, they’re still participating, they’re coming to my office hours. We’re setting up Google Meets,” she said. “I want to be part of building something brand new and so I applied.”

While she prepares for another year of distance learning, both Roberts and Hunter are counting down to the chance for a more traditional classroom experience.

“I think that’s probably the biggest gift of the last school year is the recognition of how valuable being in a classroom physically together, where that organic human connection can happen,” said Hunter.

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“For me, it’s always so important to have the children right there. And we can laugh and sing and dance and all be together,” added Roberts.

Jeff Wagner