Meet two 2023 Minnesota Teacher of the Year nominees.
Two deserving teachers were nominees for the 2023 Minnesota Teacher of the Year award. Polly Laugen—sixth-grade earth science teacher—and Lauren Sobota-Paxton—seventh-grade math teacher—say they are proud to be nominated.
“I was surprised when I found out,” Laugen says. She received an email last December including the nomination letter from the parent of a former student. “It was a nice surprise email to get,” she says.
Being nominated is an honor, but it also comes with its own set of homework. Accepting the nomination meant that both Wayzata Central Middle School (CMS) teachers needed to assemble a portfolio that captured their teaching philosophy, as well as secure letters of recommendation. “It was a fair amount [of work],” Laugen says.
While reflecting on her teaching philosophy, Sobota-Paxton compares what she wrote for her nomination to when she started her teaching career 13 years ago. “The reasons are all the same, so I know I chose my career correctly,” she says.
Sobota-Paxton was also nominated by the parent of a former student, one who opted for distance learning in 2021. Post-pandemic, Sobota-Paxton had accepted the opportunity to represent seventh grade as a distance learning teacher, teaching purely by Zoom. “It was an awesome change of pace,” she says. “It provided a whole new perspective on something I’ve done for so long.”
Both Laugen and Sobota-Paxton say they approach teaching holistically and go beyond the letter grade. “Grades incorrectly tell them what kind of student they are,” Sobota-Paxton says. In her seventh-grade math class, mistakes are embraced and are part of growing. “We all make mistakes. It’s what we do next that really helps define our character,” she says.
Laugen’s sixth-grade earth science students get the same homework assignment every night. “I don’t really assign homework other than to look for science all around you,” Laugen says, noting she uses photos that students email her to guide classroom discussion. Pictures of the night sky are a class favorite and create a shared experience outside the classroom.
The portfolio process also asked the two teachers how they address issues in education today.
Burnout is a topic Laugen was able to tackle during a class she took summer of 2022. Now, she shares strategies and tips to avoid burnout with fellow teachers and staff to help prevent teachers from leaving the profession.
Being nominated invigorated Sobota-Paxton. For her, it was an opportunity to “reframe what are my next sets of goals for myself,” she says.
This upcoming school year, Sobota-Paxton will be a teacher on special assignment as a peer coach for the Wayzata School District.
Minnesota Teacher of the Year
Laugen and Sobota-Paxton were among 132 candidates selected for the 2023 Minnesota Teacher of the Year award. An independent panel of leaders across education, business, government, nonprofit and philanthropy reviewed the teachers’ portfolios.
The 59th Minnesota Teacher of the Year, math teacher Michael Houston of St. Paul’s Harding High School, was awarded the honor at the recognition banquet on May 7.