MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — This Sunday, Education Minnesota will choose a new Minnesota “Teacher of the Year.” It’s now down to 11 finalists from across the state who teach everything from math to literacy to music to history to special education.

So, what makes a great teacher? Good Question. WCCO talked with three finalists for their thoughts.

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“A great teacher has the students best interests at heart, 100 percent of the time,” said Edward Barlow, a music teacher at Anwatin Middle School in Minneapolis. “And, you do it by any means necessary, no matter what.”

Each of the teachers say they are constantly learning themselves. Whether it be from their students or fellow teachers, they’re adjusting and revising and changing every day.

“You’ve got to be willing to listen and you’ve got be willing to work hard,” said Younna Eiden-Giel, a social studies teacher at Park High School in Cottage Grove. “Now, more than ever, we have to listen to our kids, we have to understand their stories and where they’re coming from, where they’re at and their successes and their challenges.”

While the answers from the three teachers differed slightly, all of them carried the same message — focus on the whole student.

“I think the biggest things that makes a great teacher is someone that makes their students and families feel welcome and safe and supported at school,” said Kendall Gonzalez, a kindergarten teacher at Matoska International School in White Bear Lake.

Gonzalez says she’s constantly evaluating her curriculum, keeping a special eye out for narratives that are missing. She also offers a home visit to families at the beginning of the year and most of them take her up on it.

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“I hope that families understand that I view them as their first and most important teacher and that we are working together for their child’s success,” she said.

Barlow says he’s revising lessons plans on a daily basis and taking into consideration how each student is different. He also creates space outside of the classroom to connect.

“You have to be that person that’s 100% accessible, 100% supportive and also be able to guide those students one way or the other, whether it’s big or small,” he said.

Eiden-Giel said the students she teaches now are different from the ones she taught 5, 10 or 15 years ago partly because they have more access to information and are more engaged in the outside world. Like all the teachers, she said a focus on mental health for students and staff is just as important as the academics.

“You know if a teacher is walking around the room and says to the kid — hey how did that softball game go? just showing the students you’re invested in them,” she said.

What each teacher said keeps them coming back are the support from their fellow educators, the little moments, and the students.

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“They need us,” said Barlow.

Heather Brown