An extra special birthday

South St. Paul Secondary math teacher Jessica Davis was named the 2019 Minnesota Teacher of the Year at a May 5 banquet in St. Paul. She was selected out of 168 candidates. (submitted photo)

The South St. Paul Public School District invited staff, elected officials and others to a reception for Davis May 7 at the school. She said the best part was that South St. Paul Mayor Jimmy Francis named May 6 as “Jess Davis Day,” which happened to be her 40th birthday. (courtesy of South St. Paul Public Schools)

Davis had a chance to speak with last year’s Teacher of the Year, Kelly Holstine, who gave her words of advice. Holstine offered her support to Davis, day or night, and has been checking in with her and offering the support of someone who has been through the Teacher of the Year experience. (submitted photo )

South St. Paul teacher named Minnesota Teacher of the Year

Hannah Burlingame

Review staff


The day before her 40th birthday, Jessica Davis sat in a St. Paul banquet hall surrounded by peers, family and friends, waiting to see if she would be the 2019 Minnesota Teacher of the Year.

“Jess is modeling for students that equity needs to be deliberate and intentional, which is just one of the many reasons why we have selected Jessica Davis as the 2019 Minnesota Teacher of the Year,” said Kelly Holstine, last year’s top teacher, announcing the new winner, her words interrupted by applause.

With that, Davis ended her 39th year on a high note, and started off an adventurous 40th year.


Life is changing

A math teacher at South St. Paul Secondary, Davis described the weekend as an opportunity to meet the most incredible educators and human beings in the other eight finalists.

“It was so comforting to know that this state is filled with incredibly caring individuals who love what they do and want to help all students reach their highest potential,” she said. “I cannot wait to work with each one of them moving forward to continue to provide access and opportunity to the most important people in our state: the students.”

Davis said that at previous years’ banquets, the outgoing Teacher of the Year would begin by listing vague attributes of the new winner. This year, Holstine departed from that by identifying what she learned from the finalists, highlighting each of the main educational philosophies from their interviews, videos and portfolios. 

“When Kelly mentioned learning from me that ‘equity must be deliberate and intentional,’ I was so pleased that the message of our hashtag, #EveryVoiceMatters, and desire to begin conversations [that] result in direct action towards a more equitable educational system, were being received, that I wasn’t really prepared for her to say my name,” she said.

It was a bit of an out-of-body experience winning, Davis said, and though she’s not quite sure what exactly is in store, she expects her next year to be life-changing.


Finding her calling

Davis graduated with a bachelor’s in biology and completed pre-med requirements in 2001 at Minnesota State-Mankato. After a summer internship at the Mayo Clinic, she said she realized medicine was not the career for her. “I graduated without knowing what I was going to do, and the jobs I took after college seemed to always lead me back to education.”

She worked as an administrator in higher education before enrolling in the MAT program at Hamline University and pursuing a license in mathematics, since science is what she enjoyed most in college. 

She taught first in St. Paul Public Schools before coming to South St. Paul about a decade ago.

Davis comes from a family of educators. Her father was in administration when her parents met, and her step-father earned a teaching license in the 1980s. Her mother worked for more than 30 years as an elementary school teacher. 

While she said she’s never regretted teaching, Davis admitted that in moments of exhaustion she has wondered how long she’d be able to continue doing her intense work. She said validation was a theme she kept coming back to, and that her win has energized her.

“This weekend has brought me new energy and the confidence to be intentional about pursuing courageous conversations, which affect real and equitable change for our students,” Davis says. “Discomfort is a precursor to true change, and I’m more willing to live in that discomfort for the sake of our students’ futures.”


Getting back to work

Davis said she wanted to thank Beth Johnson, a special education teacher, who nominated her. “Beth has a big heart and I see her being more and more deliberate in trying to do what is right for her students and community.”

Johnson said she nominated Davis because it’s just obvious she is an outstanding teacher. Beyond that, she adds that Davis, who started the secondary school’s Black Pride Organization, is all about equity and turning kids into leaders.

“It’s not just all talk. It’s a lot of action,” Johnson said, pointing out Davis is a confident leader who isn’t afraid to put herself out there. The kids love her because she is honest with them and holds them accountable, Johnson added.

Davis also thanked the advisers of other affinity groups at her school: Lisa Kaufman of Women’s Society; Shannon Lippke, Karol Quesada and Katherine Perla with Comunidad de Latinos Unidos; and Julie Anderson, with Sexuality and Gender Alliance. She said their support to students is inspirational to witness.

South St. Paul Secondary Principal Chuck Ochocki said he wasn’t shocked when Davis kept going through the three-stage award process, saying the Teacher of the Year selection committee got it right because she’s phenomenal.

“She puts students first. She’s a teacher who really cares about the students, their personal lives and what’s going well for them and what isn’t,” Ochocki said.

On Davis’s first day back, Ochocki said the Teacher of the Year looked at him and said she just wanted to get back into her room to work with her kids. 

“It’s a good recognition for the entire district about the work our staff is putting in with the kids,” the principal said.

School staffers weren’t the only ones excited by her win — Davis said students were too. Doing press interviews all day May 6 and then returning to work on Tuesday, May 7, she said her classroom was decorated with posters, cards, balloons and streamers.

The first day back also greeted Davis with a morning reception, attended by students, faculty, and elected officials like South St. Paul Mayor Jimmy Francis, who declared May 6, the teacher’s birthday, as “Jess Davis Day.”


Opportunity beckons

Davis said what comes next is yet to be determined. She has the opportunity to do some professional development at Harvard University this summer, and the Teacher of the Year from each state gets to attend Space Camp at NASA, as well as spend some time at Google.

“Most importantly, this is a larger platform to engage in conversations around diversity inclusion and equity in education,” Davis said

She said she’s confident being named Teacher of the Year will impact her and her student’s futures. She said she hopes to continue to build a network of support that gives students “authentic learning experience and access to opportunity.”

Besides colleagues, family and her support system, Davis thanked the parents who trust their teachers every day with their children.

“Partnership between community and education is paramount to the success of our youth,” she said, “and we can all do better when we elevate and support each other.”


–Hannah Burlingame can be reached at 651-748-7824 or

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