Teacher of the Year

teacheryear646.jpg

CATEGORY: Alumni
TYPE: Articles

Magazine Cover
Published in Macalester Today

BY REBECCA DEJARLAIS ORTIZ ’06
PHOTO BY DAVID J. TURNER

By approaching the job creatively, Megan Hall ’00 became Minnesota’s top educator.

Megan Hall ’00 wasn’t named Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year because of the monthly birthday treats she brings her students, though baking is unquestionably part of her teacher’s toolkit. It’s a small way she shows that she cares about their lives. “If I make students cheesecake on their birthday—or let them play dodgeball—they know they’re special to me,” says the science teacher from St. Paul’s Open World Learning Community. “That’s why cheesecake matters. Teachers do a lot instinctively without thinking about pedagogy.”

Being adept at both cheesecake and pedagogy has taken Hall far in her 11 years of teaching. Last April she was named Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year, chosen from 135 top teachers from around the state. The award isn’t just a title, either: Hall is midway through a year full of dozens of speaking engagements at colleges, education-focused organizations, and conferences around the state. She also represents Minnesota teachers at other events, such as throwing out the first pitch at a Twins game and handing out pencils at the state fair’s Education Minnesota booth.

Then beginning in January, Hall and other top teachers will take part in six weeks of intensive professional training sessions, which will take them from NASA space camp to the White House. During their training one of those 50 state winners will be named National Teacher of the Year.

All of this makes for a busy year for Hall. Fortunately, although she has regular teaching duties all year, a full-time substitute is team teaching with her and can take over while she’s away, ensuring continuity for students. And she’s used to juggling a full schedule at Open World Learning Community, a small-by-design St. Paul public school that features inquiry-based, expeditionary learning. Her teaching course load ranges from seventh grade life science to AP high school biology, and her classroom style is an active one.

Hall noticed early in her career that her students did best with hands-on learning, so she incorporates into her lesson plans activities such as building a Jello salad with fruit to simulate a cell. “Over the years, I’ve stopped lecturing,” she says. “I might talk for 10 minutes to introduce a unit, but I don’t lecture for an hour anymore.”

Each school day also includes students spending time in a small advisory group called Crew (“the kids do as much as I do,” she says, explaining the collaborative spirit behind the group’s name). Crew meetings often include community-building exercises that teach values such as organization, collaboration, or perseverance.

Crew also helps with a school-wide focus on relationship building, which has been part of Hall’s educational philosophy since her time at Macalester. Back in those days her two chief mentors were lab supervisor Steve Sundby and the late Jan Serie, a biology professor. “Every biology teacher I had at Mac was spectacular, but I had special relationships with Jan and Steve,” Hall says. “Similarly, Open’s system is set up so that every student has a special relationship with his or her advisor.”

At Macalester, Hall became a biology major after taking Serie’s cell molecular biology class, and thrived in the department as she headed toward a career in medicine. But once she had medical school admissions offers in hand, she felt dissonance. She had hoped to apply her passion for social justice to a medical career, but the short-term relationships found in most hospitals lacked the connections she sought. “I started to doubt that this would satisfy my need to help make the world a fair place,” she says.

Career inventories she took at Mac’s Career Development Center showed she should pursue a career in teaching. Hall was initially skeptical, but soon realized that the same things that had drawn her to medicine also applied to education. Hall’s mentors, too, recognized in her the skills that would help her become a great teacher. “She genuinely loves helping people learn and celebrates the success of others,” Sundby says. “She was a quick learner of facts who could integrate those into a truly deep understanding of difficult concepts.”

After earning her master’s degree at St. Catherine University, Hall lobbied hard for a job at Open World Learning, where she’d previously volunteered. In the seven years since, her teaching approach has evolved—most notably, she says, when she became a mother (son Dylan is now four). “The force of parental love is so strong,” she says. “Each student is somebody’s baby, somebody whose parents care about them more than anybody else in the world. It made me change how I teach each child.”

Hall likes some of the trends she sees in education, especially the push toward character education and the shift toward using the scientific method. She dreams that someday schools that create meaningful relationships and make all students feel safe will become commonplace. Above all, she works tirelessly to do her part to close the achievement gap, one of her key platforms as Teacher of the Year.

The most fulfilling point in her teaching career isn’t the most obvious, Hall concedes: it’s when she’s not needed. “I can help kids along, but it’s exciting when I see them taking over,” she says. “When you think about how much some students have to overcome—when they say, ‘I can do this,’ when they know in their hearts that they’re capable—that’s the most rewarding moment.”

Rebecca DeJarlais Ortiz ’06 is a staff writer for Macalester Today.

PUBLISHED: 01/31/2014