Home Minnesota Educator 2024 Teacher of the Year Tracy Byrd aims to provide fair access to education

2024 Teacher of the Year Tracy Byrd aims to provide fair access to education

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Minnesota’s 2024 Teacher of the Year has walked a nontraditional path to the classroom. But ninth-grade English and Language Arts teacher Tracy Byrd wanted to provide the access to quality education that he found lacking in his own experience. “Growing up, I never had a teacher who looked like me,” Byrd said. “I wanted to make sure that other students don’t have that same problem.”

Byrd teaches at Washburn High School in Minneapolis, which he also graduated from. He worked in the financial field until 2008, when he left to work in the Wayzata school district, starting out as a hall supervisor and a football and track-and-field coach. Through that work, Byrd decided he wanted to pursue a teaching degree so that he could be a resource to students who might not have as much support. “Providing equitable access to students within the classroom is the constant task in front of educators today—access to different professionals, perspectives, experiences, technology, individual instruction that enhances their ability to learn,” Byrd said in materials submitted for the award. After working as a full-time ESP while also earning his bachelor’s from Metropolitan State College in 2017, he decided to leave Wayzata and return to his alma mater, Washburn.

“The learning gap begins with access,” Byrd said. “Once a student’s needs are not met as well as another student’s, the learning gap emerges.” Byrd said it’s important for educators to be intentional in ensuring all students have what they need to be successful. “If it’s not addressed…by the time students enter their senior year of high school, those gaps become substantial.”

Byrd’s classroom policies are designed to meet students where they are while also pushing them to move forward. That begins with creating an environment that helps students to be prepared: in his classroom, Byrd keeps a supply of paper, pencils, backpacks and snacks, along with hats and gloves in the wintertime. “Think about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs,” he said. “Students can’t learn until those basic needs are met.”

Byrd takes a flexible approach to assignments and due dates while maintaining high expectations. He gives them two opportunities to complete each assignment: a due date and a final deadline. If students submit the assignment by the due date, then he will provide feedback and give them the chance to revise it for a higher score. If they do not submit anything by the due date, students can still submit by the deadline—but they do not receive feedback and are not able to revise for a higher score. Byrd says that this method is effective because it gives students autonomy. He said, “On average, I have about 85% of my students using the submit and revise method regularly.”

Katie Murphy-Olsen, an English as an additional language teacher at Minneapolis Edison High School, described Byrd as the “epitome of excellence and integrity in public education.” In her nomination letter for Byrd, she spoke about his transformative impact on students: “From Socratic seminars to meaningful formative assignments to sharing personal stories to summative projects, Tracy’s ninth graders begin their high school career as students and, if they accept his invitation to move towards academic excellence, enter tenth grade as scholars.”

Tracy Byrd is the 60th honoree to be named Minnesota Teacher of the Year.

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