By Paul Downer
Delano Public Schools
DELANO, MN – In an era of unprecedented adversity for educators, the Delano Teachers Association has named high school media center specialist Monica Kunkel the district’s 2020-21 Teacher of the Year.
“Without her faithful help our schools would not have been able to bridge the chasm to this year’s hybrid learning,” said one nomination statement from a DHS staff member. “In the summer she spearheaded the committee to lay the groundwork for education during a pandemic. Not only that, she never hesitated to help teachers with their technology questions and training. She kept the wheels rolling into the 2020-2021 school year, allowing for academic excellence to the best of our abilities during these difficult times.”
Kunkel currently serves as president of the Delano Teachers Association, and a second nomination praised her leadership in helping staff members navigate voluminous COVID-19 guidelines from the Minnesota Department of Health and Minnesota Department of Education.
“She has also been a leader in researching and helping staff implement both hardware and software technologies that have had a direct impact on our student’s success,” the second nomination said. “Many of the educational changes due to hybrid/distance learning will be valued for years to come.”
Kunkel said the recognition from her colleagues was humbling.
“I am surrounded by amazing teachers, and this past year especially has solidified my understanding of just how dedicated and incredible our staff is,” she said. “Any one of 164 Delano teachers deserve this honor as much as I do for the work they have put in to create learning opportunities for our Tigers in the triad of learning models.”
Teaching at a distance, in a hybrid format, and in person with rigorous COVID-19 mitigation practices has resulted in a school year like none other. But in some ways, overcoming obstacles is what education is all about. What does Kunkel enjoy most about her job?
“Knowing that our larger purpose as educators and an educational institution is to make the world a better place for everyone,” she said.
The path to Delano
Kunkel grew up in Park Rapids, where serving as a student aide for the school librarian during her senior year became a formative experience.
“Mr. Ecklund, the librarian, was a big influence on my decision to pursue my masters in Library Media Services,” she said. “I found the hunt for difficult-to-find resources to be fun and challenging. I knew then that I wanted to be a school librarian when I grew up.”
Because school media specialists need their teaching degree, license and at least three years of teaching experience, Kunkel pursued an interest in the French language on her way to earning her teaching credentials. She attended St. Cloud State University to obtain her bachelor’s degree in French language education, then began her teaching career in 1988 in Ironwood, Michigan, where she taught French and English.
She then moved back to Minneapolis and began her graduate program to become a licensed school media specialist through Minnesota State University, Mankato. She also added a certificate in educational technology from Concordia University in St. Paul, and the first nomination statement said she is “invaluable” in that regard.
“Monica is unafraid to tackle and master new wrinkles of technology, teaching the various nuances to educators who are in need of implementation to improve learner outcomes,” said the nomination.
Kunkel also helps provide classroom instruction on credible sources, aspects of reading and writing, and “stocks our library with the best books I have ever seen in a high school library,” the nomination said.
The right fit
Before coming to Delano, where she is in her 13th year, Kunkel built up experience as a media specialist in districts large and small, public and private. Previous positions were with Minneapolis Public Schools, Minnetonka Public Schools, and Breck School. So why has Kunkel settled in Delano?
“Delano is similar to the high school experience I grew up in: small enough to know everybody in your graduating class and big enough to provide lots of opportunities for students to get involved,” Kunkel said.
That, of course, also means there are numerous opportunities for staff members as well, and Kunkel is particularly engaged. She has coached softball and lacrosse. She is a peer lead coach and DHS building advisor in the Q-Comp program, and has served on a variety of committees focused on professional development, technology and more, in addition to her leadership post with the teachers association.
Kunkel said the opportunity to represent her peers in the decision-making and policy process is thoroughly fulfilling.
“I have settled here because Delano fits with my personal and professional values regarding public education supporting students and staff to be the best they can be, and to pursue opportunities to help each of us reach our goals,” Kunkel said.
The second nomination submitted on Kunkel’s behalf recognized her effectiveness in that regard.
“Monica is constantly striving to make Delano Schools a better place for students and staff,” it said.
Kunkel said she simply sees learning opportunities in every situation.
“Education is an lifelong activity, and no matter what career field one pursues there will be learning that happens every day,” she said. “Our work, or productivity, is a reflection of our capacity to learn. Work is also a way to express our desire to change the world for the better.”
* Outside of school, Kunkel enjoys reading, golfing, biking, hiking, paddleboarding, kayaking and traveling. She lives in Buffalo with her husband, Ken. They have four adult children.