Five finalists for 2020 ND Teacher of the Year


Jessica Brandt, Dr. Karyn Chiapella, Susan Lillian McPherson, Sara Medalen and Sara Thompson have been named as finalists for the 2020 North Dakota Teacher of the Year award by State Superintendent Kirsten Baesler.

Baesler will be visiting the teachers’ schools in the next two weeks to honor each finalist and celebrate them with their school and community. The teacher of the year is picked from among the five finalists.

The winner will be announced Sept. 30. Baesler and Gov. Doug Burgum will host a celebration later this fall for the new Teacher of the Year.

Here is a little more about each finalist:

Jessica Brandt

Brandt is a Title 1 English and reading teacher at Central Cass Public School in Casselton. She works with students who need extra assistance in reading.

One of her writing exercises is called Hot Dog Mummy, a project-based learning effort in which students are responsible for mummifying a hot dog, building a small pyramid and writing an essay about the process.

“I work extremely hard at showing kids that no matter what their reading level is, there is a plethora of books that they can find to keep their interest and to understand and enjoy reading,” Brandt wrote in her Teacher of the Year application. “They gain confidence, see success, and the transformation of becoming an avid reader begins.”

Hearing from her students and their families about the students’ growing interest in reading is a thrill, Brandt wrote.

“I love the emotions I see and hear from a child or a parent when the student starts to read at home, in the car, during free time, or for no reason other than enjoyment,” she wrote. “That is when I know that what I am doing is making a difference in the life of my students, and there is no feeling better than that.”

There will be a celebration Wednesday, Sept. 25 from 9-9:30 a.m. for Brandt at Central Cass Elementary School, 802 Fifth St. North Casselton, ND

Phone: 701-347-5352

Dr. Karyn M. Chiapella

Dr. Chiapella is a special education teacher, intervention specialist and advanced composition teacher in the Scranton Public School. Scranton is in Bowman County, in the southwestern corner of North Dakota, about 65 miles southwest of Dickinson.

As a writing teacher and literacy consultant, Chiapella believes literacy “can be an incredible force for change.” Her advanced composition students write papers about national and global issues that interest them, which helps develop their “sense of cognitive complexity.”

“My small-town, rural students are taken out of their comfort zone to ultimately move beyond themselves in order to create a culture of empathy and compassion,” Chiapella said. She has organized an initiative called “Mission: Possible,” which collects donated goods for soldiers, from clothing to Halloween candy that the soldiers give to children where they are serving.

“This undertaking encompasses humanitarian efforts, interest in the welfare of others, and understanding that the world is bigger than just us.”

She believes students’ mental health is education’s top issue at present, pointing to an increase in suicide rates among our young people.

“We have to build that bridge between great teaching and reining in the mental health crisis,” she said in her Teacher of the Year application. “We have to lift one another up in order to be there for our kids.”

There will be a celebration Tuesday, Sept. 17 from 10:30-11 a.m. Mountain time for Dr. Chiapella at Scranton Public School First and Fries Streets Scranton, N.D.

Phone: 701-275-8897

Susan Lillian McPherson

McPherson is an English Language teacher at Northern Cass Public School in Hunter. English Language teachers typically help students who are struggling with their English proficiency.

McPherson started “Career Day” for sixth-grade students at the school 15 years ago, an event that has grown so much that it is now held in the school gymnasium. It has helped students discover their passion areas and speak to adults who work in those areas. She also instituted the “Amazing Shake Competition” at Northern Cass, which is a national competition that reinforces the importance of manners, respect, poise and a strong handshake.

Most recently, the format included several real-life scenarios that allowed the students to demonstrate how they would handle a Broadway tryout, a speech accepting a prize and a server with an unhappy customer.

“I was impressed with each of the learners, and their ability to think out of the box while handling real-life situations,” McPherson wrote in her Teacher of the Year application. On the first day of school, McPherson gives her students’ parents a homework assignment – to write a letter bragging about their child. The students read their letters aloud to the class. The exercise helps set a positive tone at the beginning of school.

“It strengthens relationships between the child, their parent, and me,” McPherson wrote. Her students are also assigned to interview their oldest living relative – about their schooling, family history and positive influences – with the material read to the class and placed in a binder.

They take turns being “Student of the Week,” write an article about themselves and incorporate photos, design and color. She considers students’ mental health to be a major public education issue.

“I believe mental health is keeping some of our youth from achieving their full potential,” she said. “We had bullies years ago, but we could always escape by going home. Our children cannot escape because of social media. Taunting can follow them home.”

There will be a celebration on Wednesday, Sept. 25 from 10:15-10:45 a.m. for McPherson at Northern Cass Public School, 16021 18th St. SE Hunter, ND

Phone: 701-874-2322

Sara Medalen

Medalen is a reading and math interventionist at Sunnyside Elementary School in Minot. Medalen has developed programs at Sunnyside that have attracted state and national attention, including Books and Braids, where she combs and braids young girl students’ hair as they read to her before school and Girl Power, a leadership development group that carries out charitable projects and hears presentations from female role models, including athletes, first responders, politicians and businesswomen.

The Girl Power students have raised money for school tuition for youngsters in Haiti, using Skype to build their relationships. Medalen started Strides for Sunnyside, a running group for students, to promote physical activity and teach students about healthy lifestyles. She oversees STEAM Saturdays (Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts, Mathematics), which includes a planetarium and encourages students to collaborate, use critical thinking and problem-solving skills, take risks, and learn from failure.

“Instead of asking students what they want to be when they grow up, we should be asking them how they want to impact the world, and then providing them with innovative opportunities to do so,” Medalen wrote in her Teacher of the Year application. Our students need to not only be problem solvers, but problem finders, she said.

“If we build positive relationships with students and ensure that their social-emotional needs are met, then we can change lives, open doors for students, and help them achieve their dreams,” she wrote. “We must reach the heart before we can teach the academics.”

There will be a celebration Friday, Sept. 20 from 1:20-1:50 p.m. for Medalen at Sunnyside Elementary School, 1000 Fifth Ave. SE Minot, ND

Phone: 701-857-4690

Sara Thompson

Thompson is a reading specialist and instructional coach at Sweetwater Elementary School in Devils Lake, which was designated as a National Blue Ribbon School in 2014. She works with classroom teachers at the school to develop instructional techniques and student engagement strategies.

“The magic of teachers with highly engaged, motivated students was actually a balance of properly planned and delivered lessons, with high expectations and strong student-teacher relationships,” Thompson wrote in her Teacher of the Year application.

“As the instructional coach, I work closely and collaborate with teachers to fine-tune their craft and develop a system in their classroom to culminate the skills needed for success, both for the teacher and the student.”

Thompson helps organize “family fun nights” for Sweetwater parents and the community to help build relationships between the school, students, and their families. She takes small groups of students from grades one through four to read at local preschools, day care centers, Head Start, and the local senior center.

At the senior center, Thompson said, “wonderful conversations take place, and we know that both children and seniors enjoy this time immensely.” She helps to host an annual event with men’s and women’s basketball teams and the women’s volleyball team at Lake Region State College to encourage and celebrate respectful behavior by Sweetwater’s students.

“Every child who walks through our doors are our kids and my role has expanded as an educator, counselor, motivator, coach, problem solver and cheerleader,” Thompson wrote in her application. “Being an educator is my calling, and I am fortunate to live and work my passion every day.”

There will be a celebration Friday, Sept. 20 from 10:15-10:45 a.m. for Thompson at Sweetwater Elementary School, 1304 Second Ave. North Devils Lake, ND

Phone: 701-662-7630

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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