2019 Teacher of the Year believes every voice matters

Jessica Davis knows that her high school math students won’t ever be asked to solve a quadratic equation on the street. But she says they will always be asked, “How do you know?”

“You will always be asked to justify something. It’s that response of how you think about your thinking,” Davis said. “We use math as a way to become a more whole person, and I think everyone wants to be a more whole person, whether you like math or not.”

Her comprehensive approach to student learning is a big reason why Davis, a math teacher at South St. Paul Secondary School, was named the 2019 Minnesota Teacher of the Year in early May.

Davis was named the recipient from a group of nine finalists, narrowed down from 168 initial candidates, a near-record number.

The selection panel is made up of community, business and education leaders. Education Minnesota organizes and underwrites the program but does not run the selection process.

Davis is the first Teacher of the Year from South St. Paul. She has taught there since 2009, and also taught at Harding High School in St. Paul.

In college, Davis never considered teaching.

“My mom taught for more than 30 years,” Davis said. “She always said I wouldn’t like the behind-the-scenes politics involved in education. She was right. I had to learn how to navigate the system, but you have to play the game if you want to change the rules.”

Davis first pursued the medical field but after getting a human biology and chemistry degree and a few internships, she realized it wasn’t for her.

“I knew that it wasn’t going to make me happy,” she said. “I had avoided being a teacher. But teaching found me. I like learning and I like math and I knew I could make it fun.”

She went back to school and received her teaching license and master’s degree through the Master of Arts in Teaching program at Hamline University, which had just started.

Davis not only teaches math, she leads the school’s affinity groups - the Black Pride Organization, Sexuality and Gender Alliance, Comunidad De Latinos Unidos and Women’s Society. She is also coaches the school’s math team. 

“The affinity groups started after the 2016 election,” she said. “They needed a support network. It’s for the parents as well. It’s all about providing opportunities for kids. It just made sense to start supporting each other. The kids take it and I just get it out of the way.”

Davis stepped into the role after the group’s former advisor left the school.

“I have been able to reflect on my own time as a student, and being a ‘one of’ or a ‘one of a few’ can be really lonely,” said Davis, an African-American who grew up in Central Minnesota. “If I can help them navigate the system, I have found my purpose.”

Davis worked with students in her affinity groups over the last year to write a proposal to administration asking that graduating students be allowed to wear regalia, if they identify as being from a marginalized group.

“I had never done anything like that before either, so we learned together,” Davis said. 

The administration wanted more time to discuss the proposal, so the students went to the school board. After receiving some media attention, a private donor came forward with the funding to pay for stoles for students to wear this year. The students are meeting with administrators to work out the details.

“They really got to see the process of making a change,” Davis said.

The groups have started a social media movement with their #everyvoicematters, which Davis plans on using as a theme during her recognition year.

“It came from them finding a name to call themselves,” she said. “This is about educating their peers on what it is like to be them. It’s just as much a support group for them as it is having a space for others who want to learn as well.”

“I do believe that every voice matters,” Davis said. “You have the right to ask a question and that will open up a conversation that might end with no. Then that needs to guide you from there.”

Davis will now be Minnesota’s nominee to the National Teacher of the Year program this fall.