Minnesota's 2023 Teacher of the Year had been focused on creating community at his school on St. Paul's East Side, particularly after a difficult year.

"Our students really needed love," Michael Houston, who teaches math and coaches football at Harding High School, said as he was named the 59th recipient of the award by the statewide teachers union Education Minnesota on Sunday in St. Paul.

So many students lost loved ones during the pandemic, he told his peers at the afternoon awards banquet at the RiverCentre. And, he said, Harding's school year has been marked by loss, including a deadly stabbing of one student by another.

Houston said he wants to use his platform as state teacher of the year to advocate for mental health, the recruitment and retention of teachers of color, and making instruction more relevant to students' lives.

Particularly since the pandemic, Houston said, he has seen a need to teach content that will not leave students asking, "How are we going to use this in real life?"

"My goal coming back was, I don't want to hear that phrase at all."

During distance learning, Houston said he integrated more lessons about personal finance into his curriculum, teaching students about things like saving for retirement and doing taxes.

At Harding for 19 years, Houston teaches intermediate algebra and algebra 2, and serves as chair of the math department. He has also coached football for 18 years, including 10 years as head coach.

Houston was chosen from a field of 11 finalists, including Harding High School social studies and history teacher Molly Megan Keenan — whose classroom is just a few steps from Houston's.

"Truly, Molly, this is our award; this is east St. Paul's award," Houston said. "Our school and our community deserve this."

This school year, he said, Harding High School dealt with the unexpected death of a staff member, a student's suicide and a fatal stabbing in its hallway.

Keenan said Houston has provided a safe place for students amid the tumult.

"He has one of those rooms where kids gravitate for connection, just for a soft place to land," she said.

Harding has been a special place for students, Keenan said, though it rarely gets recognition for what she sees as students' excellence.

She and Houston hoped that the Teacher of the Year award — and the fact that two of this year's finalists came from the East Side high school — will help more people see Harding the way they see it.

"I'm hoping that not only the city and the district, but the state can see that Harding, even though we've gone through some challenging times, it's still a caring community," Keenan said.

Along with Keenan, the other finalists were: Fatuma Ali, a Hopkins High School English teacher; Bee Lee, an art teacher at Emmet D. Williams Elementary in Shoreview; Josh Mann, a social studies teacher at St. Michael-Albertville High School; Giovanna Valeria Margalli, a fourth-grade teacher at Edina's Cornelia Elementary School; Sorcha Nix, an eighth- and ninth-grade science teacher at Open World Learning Community in St. Paul; John Peter, a teacher of English as a second language at Pelican Rapids High School; Fathimath Eliza Rasheed, a middle school theater teacher at Global Arts Plus in St. Paul; Joe Schulte, a technology educator at Sartell High School; and Allyson Wolff, a Spanish immersion first-grade teacher at Eisenhower Elementary School in Hopkins.

A selection panel narrowed the field of 132 nominees to 44 semifinalists and named the finalists April 6.

The 2022 Minnesota Teacher of the Year, Sarah Lancaster of Onamia Elementary School presented the award to Houston.

Teaching can be a thankless job, Houston said to the hall full of teachers, and the profession has become even more difficult since the pandemic.

"But you are the difference," he said. "I see you. They see you. We all see you."