Every year a handful of Owatonna teachers are recognized by the Owatonna Education Association (OEA) as Teacher of the Year Finalists. The Retirement and Teacher of the Year banquet was supposed to be held on Wednesday, May 13, but due to the ongoing effects of COVID19, this event will now be held virtually, and the winner will be announced at noon on May 13.
Each year the nominations for this award switches from P-5 to 6-12. This year, five highly respected teachers from grades 6-12 were nominated by fellow staff members. The nominations include the following: Ms. Heather Bae (OMS), Mr. Steve Benson (OHS), Ms. Lauren Gendron (OHS), Ms. Emily Leckner (OMS), and Ms. Jessica Wagner (OHS and Magnet adviser). President of the OEA, Mr. Todd Andrix, said, “Typically the top five are very dedicated or involved in students’ lives beyond the classroom, they are leaders, and most have been around for several years and earned the respect of enough colleagues to be a finalist.”
For these teachers, this award comes as a major surprise and such a great honor to be nominated out of so many wonderful teachers to choose from. Three out of the five finalists are teachers at the high school. OHS math teacher Mr. Benson said, “I feel honored to be recognized by my peers as doing something valuable for students. That’s the reason we are here.” With teachers now having to work extra hard due to distant learning, it makes this award so much more special. OHS English teacher Ms. Wagner said, “It is overwhelmingly kind to be thought of as a finalist. This year specifically, I feel like all teachers are working so hard for the kids. It is a very nice honor.”
All teachers have different ways of teaching, and each one of these teachers love to have fun and interact with students. Benson said, “I think I’m just a kid myself. I like to play games, I am curious, and I like to eat candy.” OHS math teacher Mr. James Dahlgren said, “Mr. Benson makes everyone around him better. He makes sure that you feel valued as a person. He is someone myself as well as many others look up to for guidance.” This nomination comes at a very high honor, Benson said, “The thought of winning awards as an instructor never would have crossed my mind.”
The classroom is a safe place for all students, especially in these teachers’ classrooms, Wagner said, “I really try to focus on the fun we’ll have that day. Whether it is creating something with the Magnet staff, understanding a new concept in English 10, or building confidence in public speaking, I try to sell it as we got this together. It is the joined effort that makes teaching special.” Senior Emily Maine, who has had Ms. Wagner for multiple classes throughout high school, said, “The trust and confidence that she puts in her students makes her an amazing teacher and role model. Above all, she personally cares for her students and wants the best for each one.”
OHS English teacher Mrs. Gendron said, “I see my classroom as a home. I want it to be a positive place where students can learn, but be themselves along the way and have fun. I think by getting to know each other and talking about things outside instead of just content, we can do that.” OHS English colleague Mr. Doug Wanous said, “Ms. Gendron’s enthusiasm for teaching and her genuine concern for her students make her a great classroom teacher.”
For some teachers, they have known they wanted to become a teacher their whole lives. Others are following in their parent’s footsteps. For some, it hits them sitting in the classroom senior year, and for others, it may be a different path. Although many of these teachers have different backgrounds, one thing is common: they all learn from the previous teachers before them. Ms. Gendron said, “I’m a proud OHS grad, so a lot of my previous teachers are now my colleagues.”
All five of these teachers make their students their number one priority and want to not only benefit the students in the classroom, but also in the real world as they prepare for bigger things ahead. The Teacher of the Year will be announced through district communication on Wednesday, May 13 at noon.