Derek Olson was an economics major at St. Olaf College, planning a career in business, when he volunteered at refugee orphanages in Thailand and Hong Kong.

After returning to the United States, he was haunted by the images of the children he had left behind. That's when he turned to teaching as a profession.

"That really had a profound impact on me," said Olson, who was named Minnesota's 2008 Teacher of the Year on Tuesday. "It wasn't something I realized when I was there, but once I got home, I knew that something needed to be done."

Olson is a sixth-grade teacher at Afton-Lakeland Elementary in the Stillwater Area School District. He was named to replace Carleen Gulstad, a language arts teacher at Hopkins North Junior High School who resigned from the position at the end of June citing personal reasons.

The position entails giving speeches, working with politicians and business leaders, and traveling to Washington, D.C., to meet the president. Education Minnesota, the statewide teachers union, made the announcement Tuesday.

"There is no one, best, teacher of the year," Olson said, while giving credit to his colleagues, the other 114 candidates for the award and mentors he's had over the years. "I wish I could take this award and break it into pieces and share it with them all."

Steve Bliven, a teacher who works closely with Olson and nominated him for the award, said that Olson "brings the classroom alive."

Bliven's voice cracked with emotion as he described how Olson engages kids in hands-on learning. For a unit on Egypt, he said, Olson sets up an archeological dig for the students.

Their team of teachers also has students write a letter to themselves on the last day of sixth grade. The teachers save them, then mail the students their letters when they graduate from high school.

"The kids love him," Bliven said.

Olson will be Minnesota's nominee for the 2009 National Teacher of the Year award.

In his application for teacher of the year, Olson described some moments from his career that will be "indelibly imprinted" on his heart.

"I have wept tears of sadness and joy as a girl who had recently lost her mom to cancer struggled for 15 minutes and then finally leaped off a 40-foot-high zip-line tower," he wrote, "proclaiming to the world, 'This is for my mom. I know she's watching!'"

After a reception Tuesday, Olson reflected on those who think he's crazy for wanting to spend his life with 11-year-olds.

"The beauty of it is, the job description of an 11-year-old is to act like an 11-year-old," he said, saying that the students don't frustrate him because they're doing what they are supposed to by challenging authority and developing their minds.

"It is one of my greatest blessings that I love what I do every day," said Olson, who has adopted three orphan children from Asia with his wife, Kris. "My greatest achievement will simply and always be every time I have the opportunity to impact the life of a child in a positive way."

Emily Johns • 952-882-9056