Over the past 12 years, thousands of students have shared their hearts, brains, insecurities, stories, fears, and successes with me. I have watched them grow, thrive, and expand into the humans they were meant to be.
I decided to become a teacher in my mid-30s because I had spent the previous decade working in social services, and I wanted to be more a part of young people’s whole lives (not just the acute parts).
I wanted to help students improve their critical thinking skills so they could more effectively function in our world, teach them how to both identify and communicate their thoughts and feelings, make sure they felt like they mattered, and give them a safe and respectful environment where they would consistently feel like their needs were a priority. I vowed to stand up for them when other people were putting them down.
I could have never anticipated how much these lovely humans would transform me.
I have worked with historically oppressed and marginalized youth for over 25 years. They are the ones who are often discarded. The students who are underestimated, unseen, misunderstood, and mistreated. The kids who act out because they are not getting their needs met. The ones who have experienced educational and personal trauma and are scared to trust adults. The humans who have been kicked out of homes and classrooms, suspended, expelled, and thrown to the curb. The youth who do not feel their self-worth and have not always been treated with the dignity that they deserve.
I helped to design and open Tokata Learning Center in Shakopee in 2012. Area Learning Centers (ALCs) have been given the unflattering nickname of “Assholes’ Last Chance.” It is true that alternative education populations can consist of students with varying abilities and temperaments, but these same students are also some of the most creative and brilliant humans with whom I have ever worked. And, without fail, the students who arrive angry, sad, hurt, or scared reveal their authentic, vulnerable, brilliant, and beautiful selves when they feel safe and valued. They are worth every second of emotional investment.
It turns out that all of the years of working with these extraordinary folks has caused me to feel safe and valued, too.
I also was a kid who felt discarded. As a gender nonconforming human, I had difficulty fitting in with my rural small town. I stood out and got bullied relentlessly. I struggled to feel like I belonged in my family. I took that self-doubt with me into adulthood, and, as a result, I used to make choices that were not healthy for me.
Maybe this is why “at-risk” students are my people. Perhaps the deep pain I have experienced, due to discrimination and abuse, is why I can understand the suffering of my students. I think I am able to prioritize an environment that is supportive of trauma brains, because I happen to have one, too.
I have done more than 20 years of therapy to make sure the suffering from my childhood does not come out sideways with my students. I have never expected them to fill any of my needs. But when we create healthy and supportive environments for our students, it naturally becomes healthy and supportive for us, too.
The space I created for my students to work through their adversities has unexpectedly helped me to deal with mine.
Students learn so much more than just curriculum from teachers — they learn how to “be” in the world. Because I want happy, healthy lives for them, it has caused me to be more aware of the choices I make in my life. This has made an incredible difference for me.
My goal has been to protect, stand up for, and aid in the healing of my students. I did not foresee that, in the process, I would also learn how to better stand up for myself and heal my wounds, too. And believing that every heart matters helped me to realize that my heart mattered, too. I am leaving the classroom this year to support Minnesota teachers in their efforts to provide equity for their students. I will take every student with me in my heart.
Students have taught me how to be a better teacher and human being. I intend to share the cumulation of all those lessons with others. I am filled with gratitude.
Kelly D. Holstine was the 2018 Minnesota Teacher of the Year, and is part of the 2019 National Cohort of State Teachers of the Year. She is leaving her position as an English teacher at Tokata Learning Center to become the Director of Educational Equity for OutFront Minnesota.