Minnesota Teacher of the Year award goes to St. Paul math teacher

‘This is Harding’s award’

A man holds an award.
Michael Houston, who has taught at St. Paul's Harding High School for 19 years, was named Minnesota Teacher of the Year on Sunday.
Becky Z. Dernbach | Sahan Journal

This story comes to you from Sahan Journal through a partnership with MPR News.

Michael Houston’s brow furrowed in confusion when he heard his name read out from the podium: He’d just learned that he’d become the next Minnesota Teacher of the Year.

All around him, hundreds of people at banquet tables at St. Paul’s RiverCentre burst into cheers and applause. But at his table on stage, Houston froze in puzzlement, frowning, his hand on his chin. He pointed to himself as though to say: Me?

“This is crazy,” Houston, a math teacher at St. Paul’s Harding High School, said with a laugh as he accepted the award. He had not expected to win, he said. 

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“I am in no way the perfect teacher,” he said. “However, I will accept this award as recognition of the growth I’ve made and will continue to make in my teaching career.”

He expressed his appreciation and admiration for the other finalists, especially his colleague Molly Megan Keenan, who teaches social studies down the hall from him at Harding.

“I get to hear from your students that you’re such an amazing teacher,” he said. “Truly Molly, this is our award. This is East St. Paul’s award. This is Harding’s award.”

A banquet table celebrates. One man looks surprised.
Michael Houston sat stunned after he was announced as the 2023 Minnesota Teacher of the Year.
Becky Z. Dernbach | Sahan Journal

‘Just a golden human being’

Houston has taught math at Harding, located on St. Paul’s East Side, for 19 years. For 18 of those years, he also served as football coach. He’d previously been a finalist for Minnesota Teacher of the Year in 2017. This year, he was nominated by a student.

“I had Mr. Houston as my 11th-grade math teacher, and he went out of his way to make learning fun and comprehensible,” wrote the student, identified in the nomination form as Aveyna M. “His attitude was always positive and good-humored, which made his class an excellent, safe environment to learn in!”

Keenan, Houston’s social studies colleague and fellow finalist, agreed with Aveyna.

“He is just a golden human being,” she said in an interview after the ceremony. “He is trustworthy. He is kind. He is funny. He is brilliant. Students always talk about what an extraordinary math teacher he is, and that they understand things in his classroom that they didn’t think they could understand.”

Houston also plays an important role in the fabric of Harding’s tight-knit teacher community, she added, which has been vital during several difficult years. Harding, like many schools, experienced challenges through the pandemic and the return to in-person schooling. But this year was the toughest yet, Keenan said. 

Both a staff member and a student died unexpectedly earlier in the year. Then in February, Devin Scott, a new student on his first day at Harding, was killed in a stabbing inside the school, which left St. Paul reeling. A classmate has been charged in his murder.

Keenan said the teacher leaders at the school, including Houston,have played a large role in moving the school forward after these tragedies. She described this leadership as an “enormous undertaking.”

Modeling vulnerability — and financial literacy

The Minnesota Teacher of the Year Award, organized by Education Minnesota, the state’s largest educators union, is considered the most prestigious teaching honor in the state. Anyone can nominate a teacher, including students and colleagues; the independent selection committee of 21 people includes several past Minnesota Teachers of the Year. 

Throughout their year of recognition, recipients testify at the state legislature in St. Paul, tour Google headquarters in California, attend space camp in Alabama, and receive honors in a ceremony at the White House in Washington, D.C. The honor also gives the Minnesota Teacher of the Year a platform to advocate for issues in education that matter to them.

Houston hopes to use his platform to advocate for mental health, curriculum that’s more relevant to students’ lives, and adding teachers of color through both recruitment and retention.

Mental health is deeply personal to Houston, he said in an interview after the ceremony. Growing up in a single-parent household, he explained, he did not have a male role model.

“I didn’t know how to be a man, how to express myself and be vulnerable with others,” he said.

At times, Houston felt deeply isolated, like when he first moved to Minnesota from Ohio.

“There were some dark spots because my family was in another state, I was alone, and just not feeling that I was worthy,” he said.

But finding mental health support was a game-changer.

“Therapy saved my life,” he said. “I don’t think I wouldn’t be here today without a mental health coach.”

With his students, he models vulnerability.

“I’m open,” he said. “I show my affection. I don’t bottle anything up. I’m real with them. I’m upfront. I express my love. I tell them it’s okay to be hurt, it’s okay to vent, it’s okay to share your struggles.”

Keenan has seen how Houston’s approach plays out with students.

“He has one of those rooms where kids gravitate there just for connection, for a soft place to land,” she said.

During distance learning, Houston helped the district incorporate more personal finance lessons into the curriculum. He incorporated them into his own virtual classroom, too. With many students distracted with work or ailing family members and just a few video class sessions a week, he wanted to find lessons that would feel relevant to students.

“If anything, once they graduate, once they leave my classroom, they can at least navigate the outside world with some financial sense,” he said.

His students now learn about taxes, retirement and pensions, and down payments for housing. But he also tries to make more arcane bits of mathematics feel relevant to them. In a unit on quadratics, he taught students how to program the parabola jump for Super Mario to collect coins.

These changes helped make the curriculum feel meaningful to students as they adjusted to being back in school, he said.

“Beforehand, my students would say we’re not going to use this in real life,” he said. “My goal coming back was, I did not want to hear that at all.”

He also wants to help recruit and retain teachers of color, he said. For years, he said, he was the only licensed Black teacher at Harding. That has changed in recent years with some additional hires. In fact, one of the new Black teachers at Harding is Houston’s former student.

Houston said he hoped the award would lead to more statewide recognition of Harding.

“I hope everyone sees that Harding, even though we’ve gone through some challenging times, is still a caring community,” he said.