Sarah Lancaster, a first-grade teacher at Onamia Elementary School, reacts to being named the 2022 Minnesota Teacher of the Year. She's the first teacher of Asian/Pacific Islander heritage to receive the prestigious honor. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

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Growing up, Sarah Lancaster found her safe space in the Onamia Public Schools. As she became a teacher herself, she knew she wanted to return home to teach in Onamia, a small town in central Minnesota’s Mille Lacs County with a majority Native American student body.

“If I can change one person the way my community changed me, I will have done my job,” she said.

Lancaster has thrown herself into the Onamia community. In her nine years as a teacher there, she has coached volleyball, track, and speech, and directed school musicals. She is active in her church and president of the local civic association. She volunteers with a local Girl Scout troop. 

And on Sunday, Lancaster, a 31-year-old first-grade teacher at Onamia Elementary School, became the 2022 Minnesota Teacher of the Year. She’s the first teacher of Asian/Pacific Islander heritage to win the prestigious honor.

The annual award ceremony, sponsored by Education Minnesota, the state’s largest educators union, was held during a banquet Sunday afternoon at the RiverCentre in downtown St. Paul. The ballroom banquet marked the ceremony’s return to its traditional venue after two years of outdoor ceremonies on the State Capitol lawn. 

As Natalia Benjamin, the 2021 Minnesota Teacher of the Year, announced that Lancaster was the winner, Lancaster’s hands flew to her face in surprise. She brushed away tears as she stood up to accept the award.

She thanked her mother for making sacrifices that her generation did not have to make, as well as her husband, son, and teaching partner.

“I am so honored to carry this title at this pivotal moment in history through this amazing profession,” Lancaster said. “There’s no award a teacher could earn that their students didn’t deserve.”

Lancaster’s teaching partner, Cynthia Martin, described her as passionate and knowledgeable, with a knack for connecting with students.

“No matter the age of the students she is working with, Sarah displays an unrivaled amount of passion for student education and improvement,” said Martin, who also teaches first grade at Onamia Elementary, in a letter of recommendation for Lancaster. 

Benjamin, an ethnic studies and English language learner teacher at Rochester’s Century High School who sat on the committee that selected her successor, said she was impressed by Lancaster’s commitment to her hometown.

“She has such a strong sense of community and doing what’s good for the students, building that relationship one-on-one,” Benjamin said. “She also is passionate about making sure that her students are seen in the classroom and that her curriculum reflects that.”

The only teacher of color in a diverse district

Onamia has fewer than 800 residents, according to the 2020 census. A federal judge recently ruled that territory lines from the 1855 treaty between the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe and the United States government still apply, meaning parts of Onamia are within the reservation. 

More than half of the students in the Onamia Public Schools are Native American. Yet Lancaster is the only teacher of color in the district.

Sarah Lancaster picks up her son, 2.5-year-old Emmett Lancaster, after the Minnesota Teacher of the Year ceremony. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

She’s made it a mission to diversify curriculum materials, not just for her own class but for the entire elementary school, by writing grants and soliciting contributions through the Donors Choose website, which connects donors with teachers in high-need communities. Through these efforts, she’s obtained books that reflect Asian American and Pacific Islander characters, as well as characters with diverse genders and abilities.

Her students recognize that the characters in the books look like their teacher—and like them, she said.

“That’s the most meaningful thing, for a student to be able to see themselves in literature, see themselves in leadership, see themselves in the world and where they can go, so it does not limit them.”

sarah lancaster, 2022 Minnesota teacher of the year

“I think that’s the most meaningful thing, for a student to be able to see themselves in literature, see themselves in leadership, see themselves in the world and where they can go, so it does not limit them,” she said. “I know I would have looked at that the same way as a child, if I had a teacher of color, if I saw myself in literature. And that’s the difference I need to make for my students.”

‘What is going on in my student’s life that I can’t see?’

The ceremony came at the end of another difficult year for teachers. As in-person learning has resumed, mental health issues for students and staff have increased dramatically.

In her speech, Benjamin, the first teacher of Latin American heritage to win the award, teared up as she spoke of fielding calls from parents whose child had been admitted to a hospital for a mental health crisis, or a student who worried that a classmate’s Instagram post might be expressing suicidal intentions. She spoke of the difficulties of teaching with limited financial resources, during a pandemic, against the headwinds of a national movement to limit the teaching of diverse perspectives.

Still, Benjamin said, educators create hope.

“We create hope as we center our students and their experiences at the heart of what we do,” she said. “We create hope as we listen to their stories. We create hope as we treat them like human beings, rather than issues they are facing.”

Lancaster, too, plans to use her platform as Minnesota Teacher of the Year to highlight mental health concerns. 

“The mental health crisis is at an alarming rate,” she said. Students need a greater focus on social-emotional learning, smaller class sizes, and more counselors and social workers, she said.

“Those are some issues that I feel are pressing, and if we don’t act now, we’re going to see the effects,” she said. “And there are going to be some effects that we can’t take back.”

Sarah Lancaster says the student mental health crisis has reached “an alarming rate.” “If we don’t act now, we’re going to see the effects,” she said. “And there are going to be some effects that we can’t take back.”

She knows from experience that many students have experienced trauma, and that that trauma isn’t always visible.

Growing up in Onamia, Lancaster had a complicated home life. Her mother immigrated from the Philippines as a 13-year-old child bride, purchased by her 45-year-old father. Lancaster, the youngest of 15 children, lived a sheltered life. She was 12 before she went to a movie theater. She ate in a restaurant for the first time at 6, and for the second time at 13.

But at school, she knew she would be safe, cared for, and fed.

“All throughout my time in elementary, my teachers knew something was going on, but they couldn’t exactly decipher what was going on,” she said. “I think of that every day: What is going on in my student’s life that I can’t see? If I can have a story like that as few as 15 years ago, what stories do they have?”

Her mother’s sacrifices for the next generation inspire Lancaster to give back to her community, she said. (Lancaster’s mother was unable to attend the ceremony; she had to go to California for a family funeral, which Lancaster described as a “very difficult decision.”) 

“She has always done everything for family,” she said. “What I do for my community is my way of spreading her gift to me.”

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