Minnesota's 2015 Teacher of the Year, Amy Hewett-Olatunde, speaks English and Norwegian, as well as some German, Swedish and French Canadian.
It's rare that her students at LEAP (Limited English Academic Proficiency) High School in St. Paul speak any of those languages. But all are trying to learn English while earning a diploma.
The 40-year-old Maplewood resident teaches writing and English at the school for new immigrants. She said Sunday that she has learned as much from her students as they have from her.
"I have learned to be much more humble and much more appreciative of the life I have been given," she said. "Anyone who wants to complain about menial things in their lives — do you have food in your stomach, do you have food at home? Not all kids have those basic necessities."
Hewett-Olatunde came to LEAP during her student-teacher placement 16 years ago. She was hired by the former principal who started the school, and she never left.
Her students' origins have changed over that time. Initially, it was mostly Hmong, then East African and Somali. Currently, the school's highest population is Karen students, from the Thai/Burmese border. Sixty percent are students whose education has been interrupted.
"They are eager to learn; they want to be in the classroom," Hewett-Olatunde said. "They understand the value of education and look at a teacher with such a high level of respect. It's absolutely joyful to work with the kids."
Students attend LEAP from ages 15 to 21; if they don't graduate by age 21, they must go to another program. About 40 to 50 students earn their diploma at LEAP each year, Hewett-Olatunde said.
Poetry is one key to her teaching success, Hewett-Olatunde said. It works with any level of student, she said, because the language doesn't have to be exact and precise like an academic essay. Poetry helps the students express themselves and tell their stories, she said.
It's important to balance students' academic needs with their emotional needs. Many spend more time in the classroom than at home with their families, and "we want them to feel welcome and loved and engaged," she said.
In a recommendation letter, LEAP Principal Rose Santos said of Hewett-Olatunde, "During the course of a single school day, she makes the transition from teaching literature to — sometimes within minutes — teaching the alphabet or the fundamentals of grammar to a beginning-level group."
Hewett-Olatunde received the Teacher of the Year honor Sunday at the Radisson Blu Hotel at Mall of America in Bloomington. This is the 51st year of the program, which is hosted by Education Minnesota.
There were 123 candidates for the position. The other nine finalists were: Erik Brandt, English and IB program coordinator at Harding Senior High School in St. Paul; Melinda Christianson, high school English teacher at Underwood School; Stephen Dombrosk, world history teacher at North High School in North St. Paul; Lanka Liyanapathiranage, language arts teacher at Woodbury Middle School; Kathryn Oberg, first-grade teacher at Otsego Elementary School, Elk River; Terrence Price, third-grade teacher at The Mastery Charter School in Minneapolis; Ann St. Clair, K-2 teacher at Sonnesyn Elementary School in Robbinsdale; Rachel Steil, English teacher at Stillwater Area High School, and Meggie Trenda, Spanish teacher at Edina High School.