Besides being named Minnesota Teacher of the Year on Sunday, Abdul Wright scored two firsts.

Wright, who teaches eighth-grade language arts at the Best Academy in Minneapolis, is the first black male to win the honor, and also the first charter-school teacher so honored.

“I know that I have an opportunity to give young people who come from across this country, especially African-American people, a model of excellence to aspire to,” Wright told the gathering at the Radisson Blu hotel at Mall of America in Bloomington. “I know I will represent every educator in this room and every parent in this room. I want you to know that I will be deserving of this award.”

As his name was announced, Wright stood and had the other finalists come in for a group hug.

“Everyone in this room is deserving of this award,” he said. “We come from a diverse group of backgrounds, and we all have our own experiences. And to know that so many people who come from all over the state have one thing in common, and that’s to make our students rock stars.”

Wright, 29, was chosen from a field of 11 finalists in the 52nd year of the program. There were 115 candidates in this year’s original field. Minnesota has produced four National Teachers of the Year, more than any state except California. Education Minnesota, the 86,000-member statewide educators union, organizes the Teacher of the Year program. Candidates include prekindergarten through 12th-grade teachers from public or private schools.

‘I want to be deserving’

In recommending him for the award, a colleague wrote that Wright “believes education is the way for students to overcome personal obstacles, achieve their greatest potential, and change systemic issues in society.”

Wright wants to have a dialogue about challenges students are facing at home.

“What does it take to make our society better? Well, it starts in the classroom and understanding our parents, understanding what they are up against,” he said.

Wright grew up on the south side of Chicago before his single mother moved him and his siblings to a north Minneapolis one-bedroom apartment they shared with his grandfather and his wife. They later moved into Mary’s Place, transitional housing for homeless families with children in Minneapolis, for some time. He went on to receive a bachelor’s degree from Concordia University in St. Paul and will receive his master’s degree in education from Hamline University this spring.

“She wanted us to have a better life than she had,” Wright said of his mother. “And I thank her for that move and everything she sacrificed for us. I’m a person who has had so many people help me, and be there for me, and stay by my side. I want to be deserving and paying it forward.”

Eric Mahmoud, founder and president and CEO of the Harvest Network of Schools, also recommended Wright for the award. Mahmoud remembers being moved to tears during Wright’s job interview at Best Academy.

“His life story and the fact that he was able to rise above all his challenges … he is the role model our children need,” Mahmoud said. “For him to be an example and be recognized, it’s going to be powerful for the students.”

 

A brother figure

When Amy Hewett-Olatunde from St. Paul, the current Minnesota Teacher of the Year, announced her successor Sunday, one of Wright’s former student yelled, “that’s my teacher.”

Willie Gates, who was in Wright’s seventh and eighth grade classes, cheered for the man he considers a “brother figure” during the ceremony.

“When he talks to us, we just think of him as one of us,” Gates said. “With the lack of father-figures and brother-figures in the community, and having a teacher like him … that connection is a beautiful thing. It’s something you can’t put your finger on.”

Gates described Wright’s teaching approach as energetic and engaging.

When his class was reading the novel “To Kill A Mockingbird,” Wright had his students annotate every line in the book.

“It was the deepest conversation ever,” Gates said. “He brought that story out of us. It was an amazing thing.”

During his interview, Wright said the three words students would use to describe him are “corny, loving and there.”

Gates said there’s another word missing: hope.

“Having that ability not to be afraid of doing what you want to do, I’ll carry that for the rest of my life,” Gates said. “Just having that hope and trying to be more like him.”