Meet Minnesota's Teacher of the Year, first Somali American to win honor

A woman stands with an award.
Qorsho Hassan, Minnesota's 2020 Teacher of the Year, holds her makeshift award in front of the state Capitol Thursday night. The frame will be replaced with an engraved plaque.
Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

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By Becky Z. Dernbach

Growing up in a small Ohio town post-9/11, Qorsho Hassan wished she had teachers who understood her. On Thursday, she was named Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year, the first Somali American to win the honor, for her willingness to trust her students and let their own questions guide their learning.

Accepting the award on the grounds of the state Capitol, Hassan noted that her students call her by her first name, and help direct their own learning. “They run the classroom with me,” she said. “I refuse for anyone to dim the light of my students.”

“I am radically student-centered because I’m constantly trying to be who I needed when I was younger,” she said.

Hassan’s colleagues and students’ parents showered her with praise. The principal at Burnsville’s Gideon Pond Elementary School, where Hassan taught the last two years, has described her as a “game-changing educator.”

But the widespread admiration for how she conducted her fifth grade class at Gideon Pond couldn’t save 30-year-old Hassan from losing her job due to budget cuts. She will be teaching fourth grade next year at Echo Park Elementary School in the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan district. 

The Minnesota Teacher of the Year program is sponsored by Education Minnesota, the state’s largest educators union.

Hassan was selected out of 134 nominees. Speaking to the 10 finalists at the ceremony, Gov. Tim Walz, a former Mankato teacher of the year, noted that he did not win the statewide contest and joked that it was easier to become governor. 

Typically, the Minnesota Teacher of the Year ceremony is held in the St. Paul RiverCentre in May. Because of coronavirus restrictions, and difficulties rescheduling interviews with a large panel of judges, this year’s ceremony was delayed until August and featured a much smaller guest list. Finalists sat with their families at spaced apart tables under a canopy on the state Capitol lawn. 

The event was live streamed on Facebook for those who could not or chose not to attend. When the livestream went down just before last year’s teacher of the year could announce the winner, event organizers had to pause the ceremony. For the teachers in the audience, it was a reminder of technical difficulties during distance learning this spring and of challenges they’re likely to face when classes resume this fall.

Hamdi Dahir, whose daughter Amira was in Hassan’s fifth grade class at Gideon Pond last year, told Sahan Journal in April that Amira was thrilled and inspired to have Hassan as a teacher.

“It’s very important for them to see a teacher like her go so far,” Hamdi said. “They can take up after her example.”

Laurel Mirs, who worked closely alongside Hassan at Gideon Pond Elementary, said in the spring she was astounded at Hassan’s ability to develop relationships with her students.

“It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen,” Mirs said. “She has a way of connecting with kids and honoring where they’re at and where they’re from and making sure that they know they’re valued for who they are, not what they’re going to be. She grows with them.”

Hassan’s student-centered approach to teaching means developing relationships and trust with students, and letting their questions guide their learning, she said. For example, when she was teaching about Native Americans, her students had questions about the boarding schools where many Indigenous children were sent in the 19th and 20th centuries, and drew connections to the discrimination Native Americans face today. Hassan created space to let their questions guide the unit.

She kept that student-centered approach going through distance learning, she said. They had the benefit of having built relationships over many months of in-person education, which helped ease the transition to remote learning.

Hassan said she wants to use her position as Minnesota Teacher of the Year to advocate for better retention of teachers of color and encourage anti-racist training for white teachers.

“It gives me a platform to illuminate some of the issues that I face as a Black educator with retention and support for staff of color,” she said.

More than a third of Minnesota’s public school students are people of color, but only 5 percent of their teachers are–and very few of those are Somali. Still, there are signs of progress. Initiatives like the East African Student to Teacher program at Augsburg University are helping diversify the field. In July, St. Paul and Bloomington schools hired the state’s first two Somali public school principals.

While last year was challenging as teachers and students suddenly had to transition to distance learning because of the coronavirus pandemic, Hassan said being able to connect with her students remotely kept her going.

“The beauty of teaching and being an educator is that our students are our hope,” she said. “That is what grounds me all the time.”

Becky Z. Dernbach is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.