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‘Small town girl for the win:' Onamia educator is Minnesota Teacher of the Year

Sarah Lancaster hopes to use her newfound platform to advocate for more mental health services in schools and the important of teachers of color.

A group of students hug Sarah Lancaster
Onamia teacher Sarah Lancaster gets a group hug from some of her first grade students Monday, May 16, 2022, during a ceremony to present her with the 2022 Teacher of the Year award from Education Minnesota.
Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch
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ONAMIA, Minn. — Sarah Lancaster may teach in a district of only 450 students, but her name is quickly becoming known throughout the state.

A first grade teacher from Onamia and the 2022 Minnesota Teacher of the Year, Lancaster is the first winner to come from such a small community in nearly 40 years and is the first ever winner of Asian/Pacific Islander heritage.

“It was wild. I was up against so many talented individuals,” Lancaster said during an interview May 13 of hearing the news.

Lancaster was among 11 finalists invited to a banquet May 1 in St. Paul to hear the announcement.

“There were so many people there with tons of experience in the field — so many people who have given so much to the profession,” she said. “And so when they called my name, I was like, ‘Wow. The small town girl for the win, I guess.’”

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Born and raised in Onamia, Lancaster, 31, came back to her hometown after studying at St. Cloud State University. Now in her ninth year of teaching, she started as a third grade teacher for two years before moving down to first grade.

She knew from the time she was in kindergarten at Onamia elementary School that teaching was the job for her.

In an effort to challenge her academically, Lancaster’s kindergarten teacher — who later became a teaching mentor — asked her to read aloud to the class.

“She set me up in front of the classroom with a book, and I opened that book, and I started reading, and nothing has ever felt more natural,” she said.

Lancaster had her pick of jobs in Minneapolis, Stillwater or Onamia after getting her teaching license, but her hometown was always the dream. While singing the praises of the teachers and staff who saw her through her education, Lancaster was still acutely aware there were no teachers or coaches of color when she was in school.

Today she is the only licensed teacher of color at Onamia Public Schools and hopes to use her Teacher of the Year platform to connect with the district’s diverse population and bring awareness to the shortage of teachers of color in Minnesota.

About 58% of the student population in Onamia is Native American, while about 2% is African American and 2% is Asian American. Lancaster herself is half Filipino and constantly sees the importance of students of color having a teacher who they feel looks like them, even if they might not be of the same ethnicity.

“I remember the first time a kid ever came up to me, and they said, ‘You kinda look like me,’ and I said, ‘Yeah, I kind of do,’” she said.

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But teachers of color is just one subject Lancaster plans to talk about during the various speaking engagements that come with being Teacher of the Year.

Mental health is another, and it’s the biggest challenge Lancaster said she has encountered as a teacher.

Three people stand, two of them holding plaques
Sarah Lancaster, right, poses with her Teacher of the Year award from Education Minnesota Monday, May 16, 2022. Also pictured are Onamia Elementary School Principal Lisa DeMars and Doug Dooher of Education Minnesota.
Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

While being the first grade distance learning teacher throughout the COVID-19 pandemic was difficult — connecting with 6-year-olds online and getting every student the resources they needed to succeed was a challenge — but mental health issues have taken perhaps the biggest toll.

“Students are experiencing the fallout from COVID and suffering from mental health, and then teachers take that on secondarily as compassion fatigue,” she said, pointing to a National Education Association survey from earlier this year showing about 55% of educators are thinking of leaving the profession sooner than planned.

“So who’s going to be there for the kids?” Lancaster said. “... And people say, ‘Well, what can we do?’ What we can do is put social workers or counselors in schools. We can make smaller class sizes. Teachers can more easily recognize those mental health symptoms. We can give support and training to both students and staff. There’s so many things that we could do.”

And those could be achieved by allocating funds from Minnesota’s estimated $9.25 billion budget surplus to educate.

That’s why Lancaster will use her voice to the best of her ability to advocate for the issues she feels are important, the last of which is small, rural schools.

“Being from a small community does not limit you,” she said, noting people asked her what she planned to do in Onamia when she returned there after college.

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The answer is simple. She’s going to take all of her experiences throughout life — including the new ones through the Teacher of the Year award — and bring them home with her.

Two people hugging
Sarah Lancaster gets a hug from first grade teaching partner Cyndi Martin Monday, May 16, 2022, after being presented with the 2022 Minnesota Teacher of the Year award.
Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

“Yes, I get to go do all of these amazing things, but at the end of the day, I come back home,” she said. “Like, yes, I’m going to Massachusetts to go to Harvard. But I’m coming back to Onamia. Yes, I’m going to D.C., but I bring all of those experiences and all of that knowledge and wisdom, I bring it all back to the community.”

That apparent love and passion for Onamia is part of what Elementary Principal Lisa DeMars said makes Lancaster a standout teacher.

“When she wants to do something, she does everything she can possibly do in her best way possible,” DeMars said. “She is very knowledgeable. She’s very kind. She’s friendly and outgoing. She loves her kids. She loves Onamia, and that has been evident in everything she’s done. She’s not doing this for her. It’s for the community.”

It’s for the community that helped raise Lancaster and shape her into the person she is today and gave her the skills she takes with her whenever and wherever she represents Onamia.

“Just looking back on what my community has given me, that’s intangible,” she said. “... Those are the things I bring with me, and the hope is every kid that goes through our district takes those things that I took.”

Theresa Bourke may be reached at theresa.bourke@brainerddispatch.com or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchTheresa.

Related Topics: EDUCATION
Theresa Bourke started working at the Dispatch in July 2018, covering Brainerd city government and area education, including Brainerd Public Schools and Central Lakes College.
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