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Sarah Lancaster of Asian/Pacific Islander heritage wins MN Teacher of the Year

May 03, 2022 05:31AM ● By Editor
Sarah Lancaster, a first-grade teacher at Onamia Elementary School, reacts to being named the 2022 Minnesota Teacher of the Year. She's the first teacher of Asian/Pacific Islander heritage to receive the prestigious honor. Photo credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

By Becky Z. Dernbach of the Sahan Journal • May 2, 2022

Growing up, Sarah Lancaster found her safe space in the Onamia Public Schools. As she became a teacher herself, she knew she wanted to return home to teach in Onamia, a small town in central Minnesota’s Mille Lacs County with a majority Native American student body.

“If I can change one person the way my community changed me, I will have done my job,” she said.

Lancaster has thrown herself into the Onamia community. In her nine years as a teacher there, she has coached volleyball, track, and speech, and directed school musicals. She is active in her church and president of the local civic association. She volunteers with a local Girl Scout troop. 

And on Sunday, Lancaster, a 31-year-old first-grade teacher at Onamia Elementary School, became the 2022 Minnesota Teacher of the Year. She’s the first teacher of Asian/Pacific Islander heritage to win the prestigious honor.

The annual award ceremony, sponsored by Education Minnesota, the state’s largest educators union, was held during a banquet Sunday afternoon at the RiverCentre in downtown St. Paul. The ballroom banquet marked the ceremony’s return to its traditional venue after two years of outdoor ceremonies on the State Capitol lawn. 

As Natalia Benjamin, the 2021 Minnesota Teacher of the Year, announced that Lancaster was the winner, Lancaster’s hands flew to her face in surprise. She brushed away tears as she stood up to accept the award.

She thanked her mother for making sacrifices that her generation did not have to make, as well as her husband, son, and teaching partner.

“I am so honored to carry this title at this pivotal moment in history through this amazing profession,” Lancaster said. “There’s no award a teacher could earn that their students didn’t deserve.”

Lancaster’s teaching partner, Cynthia Martin, described her as passionate and knowledgeable, with a knack for connecting with students.

“No matter the age of the students she is working with, Sarah displays an unrivaled amount of passion for student education and improvement,” said Martin, who also teaches first grade at Onamia Elementary, in a letter of recommendation for Lancaster. 

Benjamin, an ethnic studies and English language learner teacher at Rochester’s Century High School who sat on the committee that selected her successor, said she was impressed by Lancaster’s commitment to her hometown.

“She has such a strong sense of community and doing what’s good for the students, building that relationship one-on-one,” Benjamin said. “She also is passionate about making sure that her students are seen in the classroom and that her curriculum reflects that.”

The only teacher of color in a diverse district

Onamia has fewer than 800 residents, according to the 2020 census. A federal judge recently ruled that territory lines from the 1855 treaty between the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe and the United States government still apply, meaning parts of Onamia are within the reservation. 

More than half of the students in the Onamia Public Schools are Native American. Yet Lancaster is the only teacher of color in the district.

Sarah Lancaster picks up her son, 2.5-year-old Emmett Lancaster, after the Minnesota Teacher of the Year ceremony. Photo credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

She’s made it a mission to diversify curriculum materials, not just for her own class but for the entire elementary school, by writing grants and soliciting contributions through the Donors Choose website, which connects donors with teachers in high-need communities. Through these efforts, she’s obtained books that reflect Asian American and Pacific Islander characters, as well as characters with diverse genders and abilities.

Her students recognize that the characters in the books look like their teacher—and like them, she said.

“I think that’s the most meaningful thing, for a student to be able to see themselves in literature, see themselves in leadership, see themselves in the world and where they can go, so it does not limit them,” she said. “I know I would have looked at that the same way as a child, if I had a teacher of color, if I saw myself in literature. And that’s the difference I need to make for my students.”

‘What is going on in my student’s life that I can’t see?’

The ceremony came at the end of another difficult year for teachers. As in-person learning has resumed, mental health issues for students and staff have increased dramatically.

In her speech, Benjamin, the first teacher of Latin American heritage to win the award, teared up as she spoke of fielding calls from parents whose child had been admitted to a hospital for a mental health crisis, or a student who worried that a classmate’s Instagram post might be expressing suicidal intentions. She spoke of the difficulties of teaching with limited financial resources, during a pandemic, against the headwinds of a national movement to limit the teaching of diverse perspectives.

Still, Benjamin said, educators create hope.

“We create hope as we center our students and their experiences at the heart of what we do,” she said. “We create hope as we listen to their stories. We create hope as we treat them like human beings, rather than issues they are facing.”

Lancaster, too, plans to use her platform as Minnesota Teacher of the Year to highlight mental health concerns. 

To see more of the original report and read related stories, follow this link to the Sahan Journal website.

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