Teacher of the Year: Fairmont native wins honor

FAIRMONT — Kelly Holstine, a Fairmont native, was recently named 2018 Minnesota Teacher of the Year by Education Minnesota. Each year, the program chooses just one teacher to represent Minnesota’s thousands of excellent educators.

Holstine, who is the daughter of Dr. John and Donna Holstine, attended Fairmont Public Schools from preschool through high school, graduating in 1992. She then went on to the University of Massachusetts to receive her Bachelor of Arts degree in Communications.

“I was in media. I worked at a newspaper and a couple TV stations. And then I was in team building and then I got into the social work field for quite awhile,” Holstine explained.

While working as a social worker, Holstine was a case manager with students who had dropped out of high school.

“It’s very, very difficult to get employment and housing and to function in our society without a high school diploma so I wanted to be in a position to help as many kids as possible get their diplomas,” Holstine said.

Holstine went back to school to get her teaching license from Augsburg College in 2007, and then her master’s degree in 2011. Holstine currently lives in the cities with her wife, Emma Freeman, and teaches English at the Tokata Learning Center in Shakopee. Holstine shared why she wanted to switch careers and go into teaching.

“I had worked with at-risk youth for a number of years and really worked on the crisis and emergency side of it, which I’m comfortable doing, but I reached a point where I also wanted to be a part of the whole experience. I wanted to be able to possibly do some prevention work in a different way and also help students with their critical thinking skills and their speaking skills and their writing skills and give them the tools they needed to get their high school diploma so that they could have more choices and opportunities,” Holstine said.

Holstine is a founding member of Tokata Learning Center, which is an alternative learning center that opened in 2012. Prior to that, Holstine taught at two other high schools, Chaska High School and St. Anthony Village High School.

“We didn’t have walls or furniture or policies or a mission statement. We didn’t have anything when we started. We opened it from scratch,” Holstine said of Tokata.

Holstine said that the school truly has incredible staff which is great because it gives the students the opportunity to find someone there they really connect with.

“I was a sensitive tomboy growing up. Some students didn’t quite know how to treat me and they would sometimes say things that hurt my feelings,” Holstine admitted.

However, Holstine’s class had their 25 year reunion last fall, and she said they had the best time and there were no cliques and everyone was very supportive. Holstine said that several people came up to her and apologized for how they treated her back then.

“They were kids. They didn’t know. I don’t blame them at all but for them to acknowledge now how much they’ve learned and how much more open-minded they are really means a lot to me,” Holstine said.

Holstine said that other experiences in high school also helped prepare her in some ways for her teaching career. She was student body vice president her junior year and student body president her senior year.

“To have the opportunity to get to know every student and find out what they wanted really helped me now as a teacher. I really am student focused so every day I’m listening to student feedback about how I can be a better teacher,” Holstine said.

Holstine had some great teachers herself who she said made a big difference for her.

Her fifth-grade teacher, Paula Thiede, is one such teacher who Holstine said really made her feel like she mattered.

“She made me feel like I was smart and she cared about my feelings and my thoughts and my ideas and that changed my life. Anything I can do to make other kids feel that way now… I feel honored to be able to do that for anyone else,” Holstine admitted.

Holstine said that other teachers, including her social studies teacher, Harlan Gorath, also really cared about her and that meant a lot to her. Her English teachers Rodney Hatle and Richard Hartshorn and also Dan Chicos are other teachers that made a positive impact on her. Holstine said her father used to read to her every night which also helped build her love for literature.

Holstine was nominated last fall for Teacher of the Year by two different people in her district. She put together a portfolio which included several essays and five letters of reference. She handed that in in January.

There were 167 candidates up for Teacher of the Year, which is the most nominations Minnesota has had in 36 years. That number was narrowed down to 43 semifinalists. She then had to put together a video with the topic “what is the impact of equity on Minnesota schools” and send it in. Then 12 finalists were named and interviewed by a panel of 25 people. Holstine was then named Minnesota Teacher of the Year.

Starting next January, Holstine will be Minnesota’s representative for the National Teacher of the Year program. One of the things she’ll do, along with one representative from each of the other states, is spend a week in Washington, D.C. in order to meet with the president and several other people.

Holstine is the first openly gay teacher in Minnesota to be named Teacher of the Year.

“It’s new for the state and it’s a responsibility that I take very seriously,” Holstine said.

Holstine admitted that the magnitude of this award has not yet sunk in. She was named on Sunday afternoon and all day Monday had interviews with different organizations in the cities and then went back to teaching on Tuesday.

Holstine was chosen out of Minnesota’s many great educators to represent the state and wear the title of Teacher of the Year. She shared what some her of favorite parts about teaching are.

“I feel so privileged and honored to be able to watch the transformation of students. We have some students who arrive here who have had negative experiences in schools for whatever reason and might also have some situations at home or things that are out of their control that can make life really challenging. When they come to our school and are given that feeling of safety and love and understanding and acceptance and support, it allows them to be more of their true selves and then you can see their brilliance and creativity and their compassion and that’s one of my favorite things,” Holstine said, adding, “I really feel like every kid matters.”