Minnesota Teacher of the Year Kelly Holstine’s teaching philosophy revolves around one thing that has helped her connect with students from all backgrounds: relationships.
Holstine, an English teacher in Shakopee, was awarded the Minnesota Teacher of the Year honor on Sunday. She teaches at Tokata Learning Center, an alternative high school for students who find it difficult to excel in a traditional learning environment. In her 11 years of teaching, Holstine has always embraced the concept that forming genuine relationships with students is effective for their learning and success.
“If a student is acting out, it’s because they are not getting a need met,” Holstine said. “If you have a relationship with a student, eventually they will communicate what they need to you in a more effective way. If you honor them and see them and encourage them to say what they need, and if they feel like their feelings matter, then it doesn’t cause conflict.”
Amy Mytnik, a parent of two of Holstine’s students, nominated Holstine for the honor, in part because of her ability to adapt to each student’s learning style.
“Many of Tokata’s students are facing struggles that make it difficult to thrive in a standard public school setting,” Mytnik wrote in her nomination letter. “Kelly’s willingness to meet her students where they are and use the most effective methods to foster an environment of safety and healing is most effective in this environment.”
A safe, healing environment is exactly what Holstine goes for in her classroom. Though her classroom has wooden tables and chairs like any typical classroom, she has personalized the space for a warmer atmosphere. Seven standing lamps light the room, so the overhead fluorescent lights aren’t necessary, and a giant, shaggy gray rug graces the floor in the middle of the room. Regular chairs are available for sitting, as are two Lovesacs and two easy chairs.
Holstine teaches one class, Writer’s Workshop, in which students are particularly encouraged to explore their feelings by journaling and creative writing.
Kaylee Nicholson, a Tokata student, has been taking Writer’s Workshop for the last several weeks and said the class has helped her learn to be more vulnerable and in touch with her own emotions.
“(Ms. Holstine) helped me overcome a lot of fears,” she said, adding that a few months ago she would have lacked the confidence to answer questions from a newspaper reporter.
One of Holstine’s former students, Meranda Williams, echoed Nicholson’s sentiment that Holstine helped boost her confidence just by showing her she matters.
“I’m not the type of person who goes out of my way to talk about my problems,” Williams said. “(Ms. Holstine) encouraged me to write out my struggles and told me … all the problems I go through I can vent and write it down even if I don’t want to talk in person. She helped me with that, and ever since I’ve learned not to bottle it up inside and to express myself instead.”
Holstine’s message of compassion and respect has definitely not fallen on deaf ears. On Wednesday afternoon in her Writer’s Workshop class, Holstine mentioned a mean-spirited comment someone left on social media in regards to her being named teacher of the year. After joking that the adage to “never read the comments” is solid advice, Holstine said it made her feel good to see current and former students standing up for her in such a compassionate way.
Eman Aboubaker is one of the students who responded to the comment in question. She said her initial reaction was of anger, but she used the things she’s learned from Holstine and tried to approach the commenter with compassion instead. Aboubaker added that what she writes on social media in that situation is also a reflection on Holstine, since Holstine is her teacher.
“My policy is let’s not have a conversation about something until you can have empathy for the other person’s viewpoint,” Holstine said. “I try to model that as well.”
Holstine is one of a handful of teachers who started Tokata from the ground up just six years ago. In that time, Tokata staff and students have become like a family to her, and she treats them as such.
She believes that when a person feels safe and heard, their true self can come out.
“I really believe in compassion and accountability,” she said. “You need to care about them enough to keep them accountable. It’s so important to me that every kid feels like they matter.”
And Holstine’s students said they truly do feel like they matter to her. Tokata student Elizabeth King said Holstine has taught her about self-care and that valuing yourself is important.
“She’s helped me through so many hard times. She’s helped me process all the trauma and bad things that have happened to me, sometimes without me even knowing it,” King said. “She’s just a wonderful person.”
Not-so-coincidentally, Holstine’s advice to any teacher struggling to relate to a student or fighting themselves to be more patient is to practice self-care.
“If you’re not doing that, it’s hard to find that patience and love,” she explained.
For Holstine, self-care comes in the form of journaling, spending time with her wife and their four dogs and two cats, and setting boundaries in her personal life. She has a cut-off time of 6 p.m. for anything work related so she can be fully present with her family in the evenings.
The flurry of activity since Holstine was named teacher of the year last weekend has been exciting but also a little overwhelming, she said.
“I’m still processing it,” she said. “It feels like an awesome responsibility. I want to do my best to represent the (teacher of the year) finalists and the teachers.”