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Kelly D. Holstine learned at a young age what “every kid matters” really means.

She has carried that motto — her motto — through every day of her teaching career, including the past six years at Tokata Learning Center, an alternative high school in Shakopee.

Holstine was named Minnesota’s 2018 Teacher of the Year on Sunday and recalled the fifth-grade teacher who helped turn her life around.

“I had this teacher, Mrs. Paula Thiede, and she made me feel like I mattered,” she said. “She made me feel like I was smart; she made me feel like what I had to say was important and she changed my life. I want to pay it forward. I want to do that for as many kids as I can.”

At that time, Holstine said she was at a low point in her life and had poor self-esteem, a self-described tomboy in a small town.

Now 44, Holstine lives in St. Paul with her wife, Emma, an artist, and their rescue dogs.

Holstine didn’t initially set out to be a teacher. She wanted to be a veterinarian or a police officer or a psychologist.

“My goal was to ‘save the world’ by helping and preventing the abuse of vulnerable creatures, and I never for a moment thought teaching was the way to make it happen,” she wrote in a personal statement for Education Minnesota, the statewide teachers union that organizes the award each year. “I could not have been more wrong.”

After working in the media and in social services in Minnesota, Iowa and Washington state, Holstine said, she reached a “moment where everything I was doing was an emergency.

“I could do that, but I wanted to be part of the whole story,” she said.

She returned to college at Augsburg, where she got her teaching license in 2007 and master’s degree in 2011. She’s in her 11th year of teaching now, she said.

Holstine taught at two mainstream high schools before joining Tokata Learning Center as a founding member in 2012.

“One of the obstacles,” she said, “is sometimes people have a negative view of area learning centers or alternative high schools. I really want to change that narrative. I want people to understand these students are amazing. Sometimes they might need a little bit of extra love, a little patience, a little more understanding, and once they get that, they can flourish and blossom and excel and learn.”

Holstine said being named Teacher of the Year will enable her to “tell people how I feel about kids, how every kid matters,” she said. “To have that opportunity on a bigger platform is extraordinary. If it helps even a few kids, it is absolutely worth it to me.”

The Minnesota Teacher of the Year program, now in its 54th year, is the oldest and most prestigious recognition program in Minnesota to honor excellence in education. The program chooses one teacher to represent Minnesota’s thousands of educators.

This year, there were 167 candidates, the most in 36 years. A panel chose 43 semifinalists and 12 finalists.

Holstine was introduced by Corey Bulman, a literature and English teacher at Mound Westonka High School and the 2017 Minnesota Teacher of the Year. His motto was “Teaching matters.”

“All children deserve the opportunity to grasp their dreams ... regardless of ZIP code, race, creed, color, sexual orientation,” Bulman said. “We can’t settle for the status quo because, again, our children, our students are watching.”

He choked up when he told the crowd, “Being Teacher of the Year quite simply has been one of the greatest honors of my life.”