Jessica Davis said her mom let out a heavy sigh when she first told her that she wanted to go back to school to become a teacher.
“Oh, Jess, I don’t know if you can tolerate the politics of education,” the lifelong teacher told her daughter.
Instead of embracing the status quo, Davis said she’s passionate about pushing for equity and diversity so that all students have the opportunity to be successful.
“You were right, mom,” Davis said Sunday as she was named Minnesota’s 2019 Teacher of the Year.
“My motto has been the student hashtag, ‘Every voice matters,’ ” Davis, a math teacher at South St. Paul Secondary School, said in an interview. “We’re all capable of so much more than we even realize.”
This is the 55th year of the award, which is organized and underwritten by Education Minnesota, the 86,000-member statewide educators union.
This year, the winner was chosen from nine semifinalists. The original field included 168 candidates from around the state, the second largest pool in the award’s history.
“The first thing we want you to know is that it was not easy,” said Heather Campbell, co-chair of the Teacher of the Year program, at the ceremony at St. Paul RiverCentre. “We took comfort in knowing that we couldn’t go wrong because every candidate was exceptional.”
One of Davis’ recent projects has been helping secondary school students start affinity groups to celebrate who they are. She’s the adviser for the Black Pride Organization and also helped the Comunidad de Latinos Unidos, the Women’s Society and the Sexuality and Gender Alliance (SAGA) groups gain their footing over the past year.
Davis was in the news recently, guiding students in those groups as they talked to the South St. Paul school board about why they want to wear sashes, also called stoles, to graduation in order to celebrate their identities.
The board had said previously that any such change would not take place in time for this year’s graduation. But at Sunday’s event, South St. Paul Superintendent Dave Webb said the matter is still being decided. He praised Davis, saying that she “shines” in leading those student groups.
“We are so proud of the student voice that Jessica Davis helped elevate in our district,” he said.
Kelly Holstine, the 2018 Teacher of the Year, said that Davis does more than tell students how to lead — she models for them how to create a more equitable world.
“I really loved that she said that equity had to be deliberate and it had to have intention,” said Holstine, an English teacher at Shakopee’s Tokata Learning Center. “She’s doing what needs to be done to get what our students need.”
Holstine and Davis shared a special moment after Sunday’s ceremony. Holstine told her successor that she could text her anytime — day or night — to ask questions or just vent about her new role. “I’m with you for whatever you need,” Holstine said. “You’re going to do awesome.”
Davis, who is black, grew up in the St. Cloud area, where she was one of only a few students of color in a high school class of 500. She was successful, she said, in part because of her mother’s background in education. “I had opportunity and access,” Davis said. “My mother’s a teacher so she knew how to navigate school.”
In college, Davis majored in human biology with plans to study medicine. Later, she went to law school. But time and again, she found herself drawn to jobs in the education field and eventually went back to school to become a math teacher. She started in her new career in 2006 at Harding High School in St. Paul and moved to South St. Paul in 2009.
Elaine Frie, Davis’ mother, said her daughter had “always been a go-getter, making the best of everything.” Her father, Roger Frie, said he was “surprised but not stunned” to see Davis win.
Davis said her mother, who taught mostly fifth and sixth grade for nearly four decades, has been an inspiration: “She will always stand up for what’s right,” Davis said
Above all else, Davis said she’s proud of the strength she sees in her students. “They have taught me so much more about myself and my position in the world than I ever thought was imaginable.”