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Paula Olson is Albert Lea’s 2020 Teacher of the Year

Albert Lea Area Learning Center English teacher Paula Olson was named the Albert Lea Teacher of the Year on Tuesday in an untraditional ceremony in the parking lot of Hammer Complex. 

To adhere to social distancing guidelines, finalists stood in front of their cars next to a balloon and a poster with their name as Albert Lea School Board Chairman Dave Klatt announced Olson was the winner. 

The ceremony was broadcast through Power 96 to the cars of those in attendance, and the announcement was met with honking from cars in the parking lot. 

Olson, a third-time finalist, said she came to the ceremony expecting the award to go to a mainstream teacher and spoke highly of the other finalists. 

“I work for the best district in the state,” she said. “I love my school, I love my colleagues, and I love my students with all my heart.” 

Olson has been teaching for 19 years, her first year in Stewartville before starting in Albert Lea. In addition to teaching English, she leads the MAAP Stars program, which is a student organization through the Minnesota Association of Alternative Programs that encourages success, teamwork, achievement, recognition and self-esteem. 

She said the hardest part about her job has been helping her students believe in themselves. 

“Once they start to believe in themselves, it’s so amazing how they can grow,” she said, noting that her students are accomplishing great things. 

Klatt, before awarding Olson, acknowledged the hard work teachers and other district employees across the district are doing to provide for distance learning amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“I do want to thank every teacher, retired teacher, administrator, para, custodian, cook — anyone who works in our system,” he said, noting how well prepared the district has been. 

Kristin Seeger, 2018 Teacher of the Year, who emceed the event, said Albert Lea teachers are making the most of the current situation. 

“Our students feel loved, they feel cared about, and they are being educated, and each day they are making connections with the teachers that have done everything in their power to reach them and teach them during these unprecedented times,” Seeger said. 

She said the Teacher of the Year finalists represented the greatness in education that will always be paramount in the Albert Lea district and recognized some of the strengths of each. 

In addition to Olson, finalists included Wendy Bidne, secondary special education teacher at the Area Learning Center; Kevin Gentz, math teacher at Albert Lea High School; Wendy Greenfield, seventh-grade history teacher at Southwest Middle School; Robin Hundley, sixth-grade math teacher at Southwest Middle School; Jill Petersen, instructional coach at Sibley Elementary School; and Staci Waltman, media specialist at Hawthorne and Halverson elementary schools. 

She said Bidne is always willing to help and encourage all students and takes extra time to see how her students are doing. Gentz makes class fun and entertaining, and students feel safe and cared for in his classroom. She noted Waltman’s strengths are her enthusiasm and the confident delivery of her lessons, and she helps the students embrace things that might not have turned out as planned. Greenfield is passionate in sharing history and has a special way of connecting with each student, and students love Hundley’s kind heart and sense of humor and that she makes students excited to learn. 

She said Olson takes time to get to know her students on a personal level and helps them build leadership skills, self-confidence and trust, and noted that Petersen works tirelessly to help teachers of all experience levels in her role. 

“You all are truly wonderful educators and represent our district so well,” Seeger said.