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Paola’s first parent-teacher conference at Harding High School in St. Paul was a nerve-wracking moment for the freshman. She had recently come to the United States, leaving her mother in Puerto Rico. That night, she brought her aunt and grandmother to meet her teacher, Eugenia Popa. “They were ready to yell at me if I had bad grades,” Paola said.
Back in Puerto Rico, she would tear her school assignments into pieces and throw them away to avoid the work. “I was a bad kid,” she said.
But Paola, whose family requested she be identified by her first name only, didn’t need to worry. She had all A’s, and a teacher ready to trumpet her successes.
At the end of the meeting, Popa turned to Paola and said, “I love you, and I trust you.” In the car on the way home, Paola began to cry. No teacher had ever said that.
Now a junior, Paola still receives encouragement from Popa, who also imparts knowledge and demands accountability. The same is true for her classmates, many of whom also are recent immigrants.
At the beginning of this year, Paola’s history teacher invited students to nominate a favorite teacher for 2021 Minnesota Teacher of the Year. Paola doesn’t remember what she wrote on the nomination form, but Popa has memorized it: “I nominate Mrs. Popa because she was always there for me, and encouraged me to be my best.”
Popa is among the nine finalists named in April by Education Minnesota, the largest labor union for educators in the state, which organizes the award. It is her second time as a finalist, and it feels strange to her.
“For just a few of us to be recognized in a way doesn’t seem fair, because I know there are many, many, many educators who are doing this hard work day in and day out,” Popa said.
Harding High School is one of two schools in the district with programs designed to support students with limited or interrupted educations. There, Popa works with ESL students. Most have experienced “layers of trauma,” Popa said.
Abbas Fahim’s father was a translator for the U.S. military in Afghanistan, but lost his job. He was granted a special visa for his service, and brought his family to St. Paul in 2016.
Fahim was uprooted at a critical developmental stage, and struggled with the new language and culture. He has had many good teachers in the years since immigrating, he said, but Popa stands out. “She understands that I come from a country that hasn’t had peace in 40 years,” he said. “She understands I am an immigrant like she was.”
Popa began her teaching career in an elementary school in Bucharest, Romania, in 1982, while the country was ruled by communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. Popa lived through the chaos of revolution in 1989 (“the revolution or coup d’etat or whatever that was,” Popa said,) and years of painful austerity as the country shifted to a market economy. She came to the U.S. in 1995 with her husband, Laurentiu, and son, Valer.
Popa’s experience is different from those of her students. Romania was not a war zone, and she was not a refugee; she has always had the option of returning. Despite the many sins of the Ceaușescu regime, Romania had a good public education system, Popa said. “I benefited from that. Not all of my students have had that.”
Still, students, coworkers and parents who are immigrants say they see themselves in Popa, and all use the same word to explain Popa’s greatest strength: understanding.
‘I’m a teacher. I’ll teach.’
Romania was part of the Soviet Bloc in 1981 when dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu instituted austerity measures meant to eliminate the country’s sizable debt. Among other measures, basic goods such as food and heating were rationed.
Popa graduated in 1982 from a special high school in Bucharest, the capital of Romania, where she studied education. At just 18, she was put in charge of an elementary school classroom while she enrolled at the University of Bucharest to study the Romanian and English languages.
As a student, Popa said, “The government told you what to do. We had to wear uniforms and on our uniforms we had a number we had to display. If we did something bad, if we were unruly in the street, say, anyone could report us.”
As a teacher, Popa’s curriculum was written by the Communist Party of Romania, and taught under Ceaușescu’s gaze. The dictator’s picture hung in every classroom, and party officials regularly observed classes.
“They didn’t care so much about what we would teach because, hey, they had no clue about the content,” Popa said. “They were more interested to see if we would tell students anything that was against the regime. And to make sure we were displaying the communist propaganda and incorporating it into our lessons.”
Through the ’80s, poverty, malnutrition, and infant mortality rates skyrocketed. “Life was tough,” Popa said. “We had no freedom of speech, and access to information was very limited. God forbid you should say anything against the regime.”
In 1989, with change sweeping across Communist Eastern Europe, the anger at Ceaușescu reached a tipping point. Several days of anarchy ended with the capture and execution of the dictator and his wife. But turmoil in the country continued.
Economic reforms instituted in 1991 meant more austerity. Government-owned assets were sold to investors, wages plummeted and social spending was cut. Unemployment and poverty rose.
The US opened a visa lottery to Romanians in 1995. Popa and her husband applied on a whim.
“I can still see my mother coming from the post office waving two big envelopes and saying, ‘I think it’s from the U.S. Embassy. I think it has something to do with America!”
Both Popa and her husband had been offered the opportunity to come to the US. They only knew one person in the US, a high school friend of her husband who was in grad school in the Twin Cities. When they called him, he praised Minnesota and encouraged them to come. He asked Popa what she might do when she arrived. “What do you mean?” she asked. “I’m a teacher. I’ll teach.”
“Two weeks after arriving, I was teaching in a Montessori school,” Popa said.
A year later, Popa made the move to Saint Paul Public Schools, where she has remained.
‘Mom, I love Mrs. Popa!’
Hsakushee Zan was born in Burma. When she was still a child, her family fled state violence directed at the Karen people, the ethnic group to which they belong. She spent much of her life in refugee camps in Thailand, where she got married and started a family. Many Karen have made a home in St. Paul, and Zan’s family followed them in 2007.
Zan got a degree and became a language specialist for St. Paul Public Schools. She is not a teacher, but supports teachers in and out of the classroom at Harding. She admires all the teachers at the school, but Popa stands out to Zan, just as she has to Paola and Fahim.
“She’s the only teacher who came to me to learn about a student in her class,” Zan said.
Shortly after Zan transferred to Harding in 2019 from another St. Paul school, Popa approached her about a student who was struggling. The two women decided to do a home visit.
The student was Karen, like Zan. “Our culture is very different,” Zan said. “There might be seven people in a two-bedroom house, and the student might not have anywhere to study.” But Popa understood the challenges immigrants face.
Zan and Popa made a plan not only to support the student, and to engage the parents in the process.
Zan was so impressed with Harding, and Popa in particular after the home visit, that she transferred her daughter Magnolia to the school.
Her friends warned her the school was “really ghetto,” Magnolia said, and she resisted the change at first. “I lose motivation really fast,” she said. The unwanted change amplified her difficulties with school, so her mother encouraged her to speak to Popa outside of class.
Magnolia did, and her outlook changed. When Zan asked her daughter how the meeting went, Magnolia exclaimed, “Mom, I love Mrs. Popa!”
Magnolia, who was born in a refugee camp, said Popa is easier to talk to than other teachers. “We know she’s not from America,” she said. “She’s from another place that also had struggles. Immigrants in class can relate to that.”
But more than her experiences, Magnolia loves Popa for her warmth. “She always says, like, ‘Good job, baby,’ to me,” Magnolia said. “She gives students cute nicknames, and I just really appreciate that.”
‘This is where my heart and soul is.’
Sky Nguyen is a senior at St. Olaf College in Northfield. She is an international student from Vietnam studying education, and was placed with Popa this February for three months of student teaching that ended in May.
Popa has been a mentor to her, and an inspiration. “She walks through the school and says ‘I love you’ to students. She’s that kind of person,” Nguyen said. “At first I was like, ‘that’s kind of weird,’ but she means it.”
Nguyen is another of Popa’s students, in a way, but she is also a fellow teacher. To her, Popa’s advocacy for teachers has been as inspirational as her advocacy for students.
“For me as a Vietnamese person, I was always taught to be quiet,” Nguyen said. But Popa has taught her, by example, the importance of speaking up. Popa’s participation in the 2020 St. Paul teacher strike was particularly inspiring.
Popa told Nguyen to study her rights as a teacher. “She told me to be educated, myself, as a teacher in the United States,” Nguyen said. “What are the things they cannot take away from me? What are the things we need to advocate for for ourselves so we are showing up fully for our students?”
Outside of class, Popa stays extremely busy. She is the founder and president of the Heritage Organization of Romanian Americans, with which she helped produce a short documentary about the history of Romanian immigration to the US. She is pursuing certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, a rigorous three- to four-year-long process, Nguyen said. She is a union steward, and was active in the union for many years before that. She has taught graduate classes, and has worked with other teachers to design professional development workshops for educators.
The workshops are about working with ESL students. They include practical strategies, but are focused on instilling a mindset: value every student. If anyone is qualified to teach that lesson, it is Popa.
A few years ago, one of Popa’s students asked why she worked with ESL students, “Why don’t you teach normal students?”
“They do see themselves as pushed to the side and not addressed in the same way as the native students,” Popa said. “I told her, honey, I wouldn’t give you up for anything in the world. This is where my heart and soul is.”
The Minnesota Teacher of the Year will be announced this summer.