Educator Spotlights: back to school edition!

Northside educators have been hard at work getting the 2018-2019 school year off the ground. In August, North News spotlighted three local teachers and one principal in our print paper. Check out our extended interviews with each of them below.

Emily O’Neill is entering her fourth year teaching at The Mastery School. This year O’Neill is teaching an all-boy’s first grade classroom, though she has taught kindergarten for the past three years.

What’s it like to teach an all-boys classroom? It's really cool to kind of immerse yourself in a boy's world. Originally I was a little bit apprehensive, you know, a class of all boys in kindergarten can be a little overwhelming. These boys will follow each other up through the school and we've been adding a grade each year, going up to eighth grade. The boys really have a lot of important time together. It's fun to build that brotherhood between them and that bond between their teachers and their classmates.

What is your favorite teaching memory? My favorite teaching memory is probably one year I had a donor that came in with brand new coats and snow pants and hats and boots for all my scholars. And it was something that some of them had never had and they were so excited to be able to go out and play in the snow. So seeing their faces and seeing them in those jackets and how excited they were, we got to go outside after and really spend some time outside. That was really special. Also, those first days of school are always so fun, you get to know them and learn their personalities.

What is your favorite thing to teach? I love teaching reading. I love the comprehension piece and I love the way when they really start to understand reading and then they move past the decoding and letter recognition, and they really get to be reading for fun. I love to listen to them read and I love to see their faces light up and make connections with other ideas.

How can the community support you this year? There's a lot of families said the parents grew up in North Minneapolis and their parents grew up in North Minneapolis and there's a lot of history. Really awesome, rich, deep roots in this community. And so if you have a local shop or if you have a skill set that you contribute to this community, it's really cool to bring that it into the school so the students see some familiar faces and they see people that are around and that are doing great things here in North Minneapolis. I love when our parents are present. I love our community engagement activities. We have a barbecue at the end of the year every year and it's so fun to see all the families come in and we're all celebrating together. 

Arielle Rocca is a science teacher and Project-Based Learning Coordinator at Patrick Henry High School (PHHS). Rocca is beginning her third year teaching at PHHS and is going onto her eighth year of teaching.  Rocca has taught in Chicago, where she grew up, and Washington, D.C. but she now calls Minneapolis Public Schools her home. Rocca was the child of a single mom in a diverse community. Rocca went into teaching because she saw others not receiving the same opportunities she did because of their race. Her teaching pedagogy is one aimed at ensuring students have the skills they need for jobs that don’t yet exist. She has great admiration for PHHS’ Principal Yusuf Abdullah, who she credits for supporting her project-based learning work. Rocca was one of the lead writers on a grant, through the Phillips Foundation, which is bringing $1 million to PHHS over the next three years for a project-based learning project-in-a-school.

What does innovation and social justice mean to you? I try to make all of my curriculum culturally relevant for my students and I use student voice and choice in order to drive that process. So I take the standards, because obviously I need to meet those. My classroom really allows for student to sort of deepen their understanding of the content. For example, one of our driving questions for one of our units is: how can we make Patrick Henry more sustainable? The unit before that was you had to pick an environmental issue that was affecting you and your family. And so I'm allowing students to choose. They chose asthma. And a lot of kids were wondering  why do we have higher asthma rates here? It’s experiential and that really enhances the learning coupled with student voice and student choice and having culturally responsive sort of pedagogy.

How can the community support you this year? We always want to have the community at the center and so feedback and keeping us relevant and keeping us grounded. I'd love for community members to come in and be a part of our curriculum and to help build it. We need to build an ecosystem. And we really do want to have like authentic internships and mentors for students.

What is your favorite teaching memory? I have so many. I love projects and I love experiential learning and I love being outside. I always open up the year, in September and October, by going outside. We visit the pond across from Henry to do a unit on ecosystems. You would think that students would like have been there but most of them don’t even know it’s there and those that do have never been there. I love it because we get to go in September and they get to rummage around and observe and make observations and inferences. They get to look at and draw the pond. And the pond is actually there, because, I don’t remember when, but back in the 80s, South Minneapolis decided to deepen a bunch of their lakes, so they had taken the mud and filled Northside ponds. Years later, North Minneapolis reopened the ponds and moved the dirt and mud elsewhere. I get to introduce that historical knowledge and the science side and it’s right in the backyard.

Alex McCoy is a first grade teacher at Prodeo Academy and has been for three years, though he has now taught first grade for six years in total. This year, McCoy is the Grade Team Leader at Prodeo supporting his fellow first grade teachers; he’ll also have 23 students. McCoy’s specialty is center-based learning. He is also the child of educators and wants to see his students grow up to see themselves in the classroom.

Tell me a little about yourself? I teach to give my students the tools they need to navigate a system that wasn’t made for them, with the idea being that if they have these tools and they are able to navigate through most systems that weren’t created for people like us, or even for other marginalized groups and kids in general, if they have these tools and can come out on top, they will have the tools needed to affect change so they can be made for everybody.

What does that look like in your first-grade classroom? It looks like giving a lot of problem-solving skills. Understanding that the expectation is here and we need to meet that expectation, but at the same time, being able to advocate for yourself and to be able to help change some of those expectations while you’re in here. Understanding that there are certain things that we have to do in schools, because it’s a school wide procedure and so, how can we navigate those systems and how can we advocate for ourselves when we think something isn’t fair. We talk about when it’s an appropriate time to say your piece and how to say that respectfully. How do you disagree respectfully.

What about teaching makes you want to wake up in the morning? I love the a-ha moment. There are plenty of times when I have seen kids trying to get something, really struggling and they go home and one night and, boom, they got it! And they want to show you the progress that they’ve made and they are really excited about it. And then past the a-ha moment is when they really take these skills and make them their own. Like knowing how to use strategies to solve a math problem and apply them to somebody they have a disagreement with. That’s definitely the reason I like coming to work everyday.

How can the community best support you this year? It would be nice to be able to bring in people from the community who are successful in other areas, other than sports and entertainment. I know that those are usually the visuals that we get to see, especially as far as representations of ourselves. It would be nice to see other options. I knew that teaching was something that I could do because I came from a family of teachers. My mom is a professor at Macalester College. My grandmother was a teacher. My grandpa was a teacher. My aunt was a teacher, my cousin was a teacher, so I knew that was a profession I could get into because I saw people like me in the profession. It would be nice to see people like them in other professions, other than me being the only Black male teacher that they’ll see. It would be nice for them to see doctors and lawyers and accountants and businessmen. And if there was ever an opportunity from the community for us to take a field trip to see what people do or have people come in and read a book and talk about what their profession is. Just exposing our scholars to different opportunities that they’ll have in the future, having high school or college kids come in and talk about their experience. Giving them a scope of the future and all the possibilities that they have.

Why teach at Prodeo? This community has the school that I’ve been looking for since I got into teaching. Everybody here is really determined to be here for the students first and it’s been one of those wonderful places where people jump in to help you out when you need it. Everybody is always ready to offer resources. There isn’t an ego thing about who does things best. They do a really good job of teacher training here. Individualized coaching. So as a teacher I am able to improve my skills, meeting with the coach and the coach will come into the classrooms to give you realtime feedback and will model lessons for you. The coaching is really awesome, because no matter how many years in the classroom, you can always get better.


Amy Leuhmann is the Principal of Nellie Stone Johnson Elementary School. Leuhmann has taught with Minneapolis Public Schools for 28 years, the last 18 of which have been in North Minneapolis. Leuhmann has been with Nellie Stone Johnson for nine years, five years as Assistant Principal and four as Principal. She has also taught at Jenny Lind, Bethune, and Loring. Leuhmann would have preferred that one of her staff be spotlighted instead. She speaks highly of her staff who she calls “some of the best,” and her students, who are predominantly African American and Latino, with a high number of highly mobile or homeless students. A third generation educator, Leuhmann has taught second grade, fourth grade, gifted & talented, and small group instruction.

What is your favorite subject to teach? Literacy. I grew up reading my books. I remember riding my bike down to the library to get my basket full of books every summer. I tried to be a volunteer librarian, but they kicked me out after twenty minutes, because I couldn’t stop talking and they said you couldn’t talk. I was twelve. I’m an introvert, so the fact that I got fired for speaking so much was kind of interesting, because I never spoke in school or raised my hand.

What is your favorite thing about Nellie Stone? I have to say there is two. Obviously, hands down, people are always going to say their kids, which it is, but the staff and the students are what bring me back year-after-year. No day is the same. I firmly believe that our students need the very best and not to toot my own horn, but I feel like my staff is one of the very best and we can meet their challenges and they just come to school full of life and full of energy and hopefully we can make a difference in their lives and in their families lives.

What is your favorite part about the beginning of the school year? The adrenaline. And it’s a clean slate. And you can reflect on what worked last year, what do we need to tweak, what do we need to improve on. It feels like a fresh start, like a refresh. We also don’t have a real stable population, so it’s always new and it’s a chance to get even better.

How can the community best support you this year? In terms of NSJ families, get engaged in the school. You can’t always be at school, but at home, check on homework, check for backpacks, look for homework, read to your child, show up for conferences, be aware of what activities there are engage in. This year, there will be a half-hour on Fridays for parents to come in for reading or math with their students. And we love volunteers here: picture day, shelving books in the Media Center, working with kids. The community as a whole, love your community so the kids can love it too. Beautify the community, keep it clean, keep it safe for our kids.

North News launched this column to highlight the work of Northside educators doing innovative and socially just work in our North Minneapolis classrooms. If you have any recommendations for our upcoming spotlights, you can email North News at If possible, please contact information for the person you are recommending.

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Cirien Saadeh