East Side teacher finalist for MN Teacher of the Year

If named Minnesota Teacher of the Year, Erik Brandt says he hopes it will not be a celebration of him, but rather of the work he and his fellow Harding teachers do. (Patrick Larkin/Review)

Erik Brandt, English teacher and IB coordinator at Harding High, is one of 10 vying for the prestigious award

The 40-year-old Erik Brandt comes across alert, energetic and positive.

He fits the image of a teacher: glasses, a blue button-up shirt and a matching tie, covered by a sweater vest. He strides confidently through the halls, stopping to chat and joke with teachers and students. At Harding High, he seems very much in his zone.

He seems flattered to be a finalist for the 2013 Minnesota Teacher of the Year Award.

“Frankly, I’m kind of surprised,” he says modestly. “All I can do is think of other teachers ... who I feel are more wise than me and smarter than me and better teachers than me who should be finalists.”

But the point of the award is “not to select the best teacher in Minnesota; that would be impossible,” says Doug Dooher, staff coordinator for award program.

Rather, the point is to find a teacher who serves as a good representative of Minnesota teachers, “to highlight the many great teachers in Minnesota,” Dooher says.

A panel of 25 community leaders from throughout the state will interview Brandt and nine other finalists on May 4. The Minnesota Teacher of the Year will be announced the following day at a banquet.

The award is given out by Education Minnesota, the statewide teachers’ union.

Brandt says he’s a little intimidated by the prospect of facing such a large panel.

The panel includes people from the realms of education, business, government and the non-profit sector, Dooher says. “The panel is pretty diverse,” he says.

Brandt bashfully admits he nominated himself. But he says it was only after being encouraged by Mary Cathryn Ricker, president of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers.

Ricker had called for ample St. Paul teachers to be represented in the Teacher of the Year competition. So Brandt thought “why not.”

He was also intrigued by the application process, which asked him to describe his teaching philosophy.

“I hadn’t thought about that since I was 19,” Brandt exclaims. He thought to himself, “How have I changed in the last 21 years?”

For one thing, he feels he has a better handle on where the focus should be when it comes to teaching.

Teaching for learning, not testing

“The goal is to learn, not to pass tests. Who sends their kids to school in the morning and thinks ‘I hope little Johnny becomes a great standardized test-taker’?” Brandt says.

Above all, Brandt says he aims to “take away the fear of failing” in the inner-city classroom. He seeks to avoid the test-taking culture of education that he says is too prevalent.

He spoke of how kids take a bare minimum of nine standardized tests. His daughter was taking her first assessment test the day of the interview.

Such testing “does not encourage play,” he says.

“The best education happens when students feel safe, have the tools they need, feel free to ‘play’ with their ideas and feel as if they have ownership of their learning process,” he says in his essay for the Teacher of the Year competition.

This means that he tries not to dominate the classroom discussions, he says. “I’m more interested in hearing my kids talk.”

For instance, Brandt just finished up with a unit about the dystopian novel “1984” by George Orwell, which included a weeklong immersive role-playing experience.

Harding High senior Tayler Alan Staples says he loved the unit. “We kind of lived the life of ‘1984,’” he says, explaining that the class was split up into the separate social castes from the book - the “proles,” the “outer-party,” the “inner-party” and the “thought police,” with Brandt himself playing the role of “Big Brother.”

The “thought police,” whose identities were secret, would report pretend bad behavior to “Big Brother,” who would then dole out due punishment in the form of “vaporizations.”

This type of immersive experience “helped us as a class better understand the book,” Staples says. “It was fun, but we actually learned a lot” as well.

Brandt “makes class really, really fun, which is something a lot of teachers can’t do,” he says. “He makes it so you want to read.”

Beyond that, Evelina Vang, also a senior at Harding High, says she appreciates Brandt’s approach to students, treating them as adults.

“He really puts the responsibility on the students,” she says.

And his willingness to “open up and share” life experiences “gives us a whole view of life,” she says.

She also appreciates him being a musician - Brandt plays in a number of bands, including a church band and a group called the Urban Hillbilly Quartet, which he describes as “experimental Americana.”

Lee Stagg, another English teacher at Harding, backs up what the high-schoolers were saying.

“(Brandt) builds relationships like crazy with students,” he says. “He reaches kids.”

Teaching in an urban school

“The last thing I expected was to be an inner-city English teacher,” says Brandt, who grew up in Janesville, Wis.

“I loved the rural life,” he adds. “I saw myself as a rural teacher.”

He had planned on landing in a small town somewhere, maybe in Wisconsin.

But while he was studying at Macalester College in St. Paul, he fell in love with urban teaching, first at Battle Creek Middle School, and shortly thereafter at Harding High. “It just felt right,” he says.

“There are definitely easier places to teach,” he says. But teaching at Harding High is “really rewarding,” he says, albeit sometimes exhausting. At the school, he feels that he and other teachers are truly “in a unique position to really help kids out.”

“There’s never a question in my mind that I’m doing something good with my life,” he says. “If we’re able to help these kids, then ideally their kids will someday be better off.”

“A lot of our students live in poverty,” Brandt says, pointing out that over 80 percent qualify for free and reduced-cost lunches.

Because of that, he says that there are students who rely on the school for very fundamental needs, such as food and warmth. For some of these kids, “when there isn’t school, they don’t eat,” Brandt says.

At Harding, teachers provide a “topnotch education on top of survival needs,” he says.

A fellow International Baccalaureate teacher at Harding, Stagg says that because of the socioeconomic realities many Harding students face, teachers “have to be more sensitive to issues of race and socioeconomic inequality.”

“If you don’t understand the context of your kids, it’s going to be hard to teach.” Brandt gets this, he says.

Harding made the Washington Post’s list of “Challenge Schools,” which measures the ratio of college-level test taking at schools. Ranking 21st in the state of Minnesota ahead of some suburban schools, students at Harding High School take an average of 1.4 college-level tests prior to graduation.

“If we can do anything to increase the earning potential, the college readiness of our students, then we can make a difference ... and we see it happening, and, it’s beautiful,” Brandt says.

International Baccalaureate program

One of the ways Harding High kids can prepare for college is through the school’s International Baccalaureate program, Brandt says. Brandt is the program coordinator for the school’s IB program, which was started in 1995. He’s been the coordinator for the school for the past five years, doing things like helping teachers get materials, arranging training, organizing the IB exams, and answering a constant onslaught of e-mails.

The IB program “really challenges them,” but in a way that the kids can “construct their own meaning.”

It’s also globally oriented, he says.

In his small, somewhat cluttered office, he had been working on sending out one student’s IB theater essay to Zimbabwe to be reviewed by a teacher there. The IB exams students take are all sent out to other IB teachers around the globe for review.

Brandt took over the IB coordinator position from Bob Bergstrom, who retired from Harding in 2007.

Bergstrom says he’s glad Brandt took over. “That’s who I was pulling for,” he says.

There are currently 518 students taking IB classes at Harding, including 97 who are taking five of the year-long courses or more. With another 642 kids taking accelerated courses, over half of the school is enrolled in at least one advanced class.

Bergstrom says that unlike a lot of schools, Harding’s IB program is representative of its demographics.

A lot of the growth of the program is thanks to Brandt, Bergstrom says. He says Brandt lets kids know “you can do this,” and actively challenges students to take the courses. 

“I like being in the position of making the IB program happen for my school,” Brandt says.

But he says that he misses teaching all day. Coordinating the program for the school means he is only teaching two sections of IB English this year.

“It’s fun but it’s a lot of work,” he says. “What brings me joy is actually working with kids.”

If he wins, it’s not about him

There is no specific set of criteria for choosing the teacher of the year, Dooher says. They just need to “show that they’re a great teacher.” Evaluators ask themselves, “Does their story jump off the page?” he says. “Do you want to meet this person?”

Brandt speculates that his mixed teaching background, his IB position, and his status as a National Board certified teacher might have made him stick out of the pack. He says he’s familiar with a variety of school settings, having gone to a rural public school and a private high school, and teaching for 18 years in an inner-city setting. That, and he’s lived in other countries, including Scotland and Hungary.

He went to Hungary six years ago on a Fulbright teacher exchange program. He says being in Hungary made him question the American education system. For instance, Hungarian school kids show up without a schedule on the first day and get to pick what classes they want to take. By contrast, American kids are fit into a schedule, he says. Things like this showed him “a major philosophical difference” between the two models and made him realize “there are lots of ways to do it right” in terms of educating.

Whatever it was that made him stick out, Brandt insists that being a finalist for the teaching award is not about him.

Instead, “it’s about what (all teachers) do at Harding, and the work that International Baccalaureate schools do.”

Stagg says that Brandt would be a good fit for the award, saying he’s “a spokesperson for what’s working in urban education.”

Brandt was one of an original 135-person candidate pool for the award, and made it through two rounds of cuts to be in the top 10. The winner of the May 4 round of judging will go on to compete in a national contest.

If he wins, Brandt says it will be “a chance to talk about the good work we do at Harding. All the teachers.”

“It’s not about me,” he says.

Patrick Larkin can be reached at 651-748-7816 or at eastside@lillienews.com.

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