A Learning Legacy: Neveln second grade teacher named 2020 Austin Teacher of the Year

Published 7:10 am Saturday, November 16, 2019

When Maria Mickelson walked into her second grade classroom on Friday morning, her students swarmed her and gathered around to give their teacher a big hug and were all smiles.

Just moments before, the Neveln Elementary School teacher was named the 2020 Austin Teacher of the Year, where she was honored and commended for her hard work in educating second grade students who come through her classroom at the school. Last year, Woodson Kindergarten Center teacher Alisha Galle was selected as the 2019 Austin Teacher of the Year.

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Following more than two-decades worth of teachers who were in the same shoes as her from preceding years, Mickelson was left speechless and grateful to be honored with the prestigious accolade.

“Right away, I felt humbled,” she said. “There are so many amazing teachers in the school district and in this building. There was such a worthy pool of candidates, and I’m very surprised to have been chosen.”

Having Mickelson selected as Teacher of the Year was not at all a surprise for those who work with her daily. Principal David Wolff saw Mickelson’s level of compassion in the classroom and never once doubted her ability to connect with her students at all stages of their learning development.

“Maria is so compassionate for her kids,” Wolff said. “She cares not only for their academics, but for their overall wellbeing. She carries those students in her heart and thinks about them beyond the classroom and doesn’t just leave it at the door. She’s just a wonderful person, and I don’t think of a single person who can find a fault in her. She’s a wonderful person and teacher.”

Maria Mickelson stops to talk to students at Neveln Elementary after being named Austin Teacher of the Year Friday.
Photos by Eric Johnson/photodesk@austindailyherald.com

Now, Mickelson will be considered for the nomination as a semi-finalist for the Minnesota Teacher of the Year award. Whether or not she makes the list will be known sometime in February, with the overall state winner announced in the spring.

Her approach to education is simple: establish relationships with her students and address all the needs of the child, as opposed to just academics.

“I believe in forming relationships with them and making students feel loved and wanted,” Mickelson said. “Their emotional needs need to be met before academics. Now that we’ve established routines and expectations, they can continue growing.”

Legacy of Learning

Approaching her 30th year in teaching, Mickelson reflected on her time as an educator and felt that there was something special about being able to help children and to become better people.

Yet, her journey into education wasn’t new. Rather, she followed in the footsteps of someone important to her and who greatly influenced her desire to become a teacher and help educate the next generation—her father, Rudy Spieker.

A retired Albert Lea teacher, Spieker saw the spark early in his daughter’s life. He recounted the first day of school when Mickelson could hardly wait to go to her classroom and make new friends as well as meet her school teacher.

“She was really a lover of education,” Spieker said. “She could hardly wait to start school and jumped onto that school bus super quick.”

So it didn’t come as a surprise to him when he learned that Mickelson would be named Austin Teacher of the Year. Instead, Spieker was “full of excitement and happiness” at the news of her accomplishment. He knew she had what it took to become an exceptional teacher and to go further in her career.

“I’m real proud of her,” Spieker said. “It makes me feel that she’s an exceptional daughter, and it makes me so happy to see her become a successful teacher. To be a good teacher, would they enjoy working with young students and does it make you feel good when they excel and learn? Maria shows all of that.”

Eventually, Mickelson went on to receive her bachelor’s degree in elementary education from Luther College in Iowa, and then her master’s degree in mathematics and literacy from the University of Minnesota. While attending school at Luther, she met her husband, Todd Mickelson, who saw her love for teaching and continues to see that inspiration for education today.

Neveln Elementary second grade teacher Maria Mickelson embraces a pair of students who came up to congratulate her after she was named Teacher of the Year.

“Whenever we’re sitting on the couch together, I’ll see her keep working at 8 p.m.,” Todd said. “She’s always thinking about what she can do better for her students, and is inclusive about everybody. Teaching is in her blood, and she exemplifies what it means to be a teacher every day. She is just as passionate today as she was back then when I first met her.”

A proud lineage of teachers came from within the family. Generations of teachers soon followed, including Mickelson’s daughter, Mollie Schwartz, who became an elementary music teacher at Albert Lea Public Schools. Again, to no one’s surprise, she was greatly influenced by her mother to become a teacher herself and now spends every day teaching children about loving and appreciating music.

“I was very happy for my mom that she was chosen, and I knew she totally deserved this,” Schwartz said. “She really inspired me to go into teaching. I wasn’t sure about becoming a teacher at first, but after seeing her with her students while helping out in her classroom, I was able to take my passion for music and children and found out teaching was a great fit for me.”

This inspiration continued down the family tree, and those who were inspired by Mickelson’s commitment to the classroom were proud to share in that legacy. This included Nicole Wallin, Mickelson’s niece, who has been interning at Neveln to learn more about becoming an English Secondary Learning (ESL) teacher. Every day, she’s able to visit her aunt and see firsthand how a homeroom teacher preps for the day.

During those interactions, she receives valuable words of wisdom that she plans to carry with her into her own teaching career down the road. Thanks to Mickelson.

“Always offer myself to my students before and after school, and not just in the classroom,” Wallin said. “We have to do more work beyond just the classroom.”