Holstine: Every kid matters

Kelly Holstine

Kelly Holstine, the 2018 Minnesota Teacher of the Year and a 1992 Fairmont High School graduate, was the guest speaker at a back-to-school opening session for all educators at Fairmont Area Schools on Tuesday.

Holstine teaches English at Tokata Learning Center, an alternative learning center in Shakopee, where she is a founding member. Prior to teaching, Holstine worked in media, then as a social worker.

Since she was named Teacher of the Year in May, Holstine has had many interviews, given many speeches and attended many conferences. She will be going to the White House along with teachers of the year from the other 49 states to meet President Trump and Betsy DeVos, the U.S. Secretary of Education, among others.

“Thank you for inviting me back,” Holstine told those gathered Tuesday. “If you would have told me as a kid that I would have this opportunity I would not have believed you.”

Holstine began her speech talking about how she and her wife, Emma, volunteer with an animal rescue.

“Every time a new dog arrives in our home from a puppy mill, I get a little nervous,” she said. “I know a few details about their history, but not everything. I don’t know their struggles and I don’t know how to teach them how to be confident and happy dogs.”

She went on to explain that the dogs often are not trusting of humans because they may have been mistreated.

“Every single one of them wants to feel like he or she matters,” Holstine said. “That is the constant. That is what gives me the courage to tackle the unknown, and I know I couldn’t foster and rehabilitate animals without Emma’s help and without the amazing support of other volunteers. The first day of school feels very similar, times 100.”

She explained that each school year brings new students, and on the first day she cannot know the struggles and needs of each individual student, and does not know the details of their home life.

“I do know that every single kid wants to feel like he or she matters and I know I can’t do it by myself,” Holstine said.

She talked about a guarded student whom she had that was struggling with different mental health diagnoses and the recent suicide of her mother. Holstine said the student was lonely and wanted to connect with other humans but did not know how.

“Tokata Learning Center uses restorative practices and personalized learning to empower students,” Holstine said. “She slowly began to trust other humans and became more confident. It took the work of our Tokata community to make this happen.”

“Every kid matters and you matter too. I know this sounds cheesy and I’m OK with it,” Holstine said with a laugh, adding, “It’s what I believe.”

Holstine explained that in order to be successful and help their students, educators need to be able to address their own needs so they can work better together with others.

“Teaching is exciting and painful and terrifying,” she said. “Learning about our students’ struggles can take a toll on us. I believe that if we matter, if our strengths are recognized, if our flaws are met with compassion, if our mental health is supported and our unique quirks are celebrated, then we can improve as humans and better meet the needs of our students.”

Holstine said educators need to help challenge each other and encourage each other to be more authentic. She said that courageous connections make kids feel like they matter.

“It is extremely difficult to value the needs of others when we don’t feel like our needs matter too,” said Holstine, explaining that it is important to be vulnerable, even though it’s difficult.

Holstine shared that she struggled during her early years as a student, not academically, but emotionally, because she stood out as a tomboy.

“I tried really hard to be what other people wanted me to be but I never stopped feeling inauthentic, lonely and miserable,” she admitted.

Holstine explained that she switched careers from being a social worker to a teacher because she wanted to believe in the goodness of humans, and be able to celebrate the successes and support the struggles of students. However, she has had to deal with homophobia and discrimination, both in the hallways of schools and in the outside world.

“My experiences have helped me to support and advocate for students who do not feel accepted, valued and/or seen,” she shared.

“It is not enough to tell our students that it gets better,” she said. “We need to show them that it will get better now. As a GLBT staff member, we cannot be their only champions; we need the help of our heterosexual allies too. I keep hoping that more educators and students will feel safe and supported to be out and that they will be celebrated for who they are. Maybe the fact that I’m the first out GLBT teacher to be named Minnesota Teacher of the Year means that change is coming.”

Holstine wrapped up her speech by saying she knows teachers have a difficult job, but that students rely on them to be their advocates and their champions. She reminded teachers to have authentic relationships with students so that trust is formed.

“Please consider having empathy for yourselves and for others when things aren’t perfect,” she said. “Our students benefit when we work together, not just on the curriculum but on how to become better human beings. It’s up to us to create environments that make it safe to be imperfect. Every kid matters, every educator matters, every heart matters and we need each other to make all of this work.”

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