Two 622 teachers named semifinalists for state award

Julie Swanson
Julie Swanson
Stephen Dombrosk
Stephen Dombrosk

Julie Swanson, Stephen Dombrosk make the grade

Having one teacher chosen as a semifinalist for Minnesota Teacher of the Year is enough to elicit praise for just about any medium-sized school district; having two is a huge honor.

Members of Education Minnesota, which sponsors the award, have named two veteran teachers from District 622 as semifinalists for the 2015 Minnesota Teacher of the Year Award.

North High School history teacher Stephen Dombrosk and Cowern Elementary third grade teacher Julie Swanson made the cut of 30 semifinalists from across the state. That number was winnowed down from 123 candidates late last month. A 25-member panel of community leaders will narrow the number to 10 finalists later this month, and the 2015 Minnesota Teacher of the Year will be announced Sunday, May 3.

Your new teacher's at the door

Swanson says her relationship with her third grade students begins in July when she starts making home visits to her incoming students. She says getting to know each child and family ahead of time gives her an advantage in the classroom.

"The knowledge I get is wonderful. It's an opportunity to get to know their hopes and dreams and build a relationship," she says. "I want them to know that I know them and love them not just as a student, but outside of the four walls of the classroom."

These home visits are just one example of the dedication Swanson has to teaching.

"She's so passionate and makes learning both fun and challenging for her students," Cowern principal Sonya Czerepak says. "I have not walked into her classroom when she's not fully engaged. To watch her teach is extraordinary."

Keeping students minds on learning can be challenging in a digital age where youngsters' attention spans are shorter than ever.

"I have to compete with video games," Swanson says with a laugh.

She says her goal is to keep her students engaged. To ensure they're paying attention, she might ask them to do things like touch their noses if they know the answer to a question.

"I'm big on action," she says. "I like to keep them moving. We laugh together, sing and dance together."

Swanson says it's equally important for students to not just know what they are learning, but why they are learning it.

Teaching was a natural choice for Swanson, who says she was drawn to the profession at a young age.

A lifelong athlete, Swanson, who now lives in Oakdale, grew up in White Bear Lake. She played basketball at White Bear Lake Area High School and college ball at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. She returned to White Bear Lake for several years, where she was the girls high school basketball team's assistant coach and head coach. Now in her 16th year as a teacher, Swanson has given up coaching in order to focus fully on the classroom.

She says she is both honored and excited to have been chosen as a semifinalist for Minnesota Teacher of the Year, but she was quick to share the credit with others in the district.

"I'm very honored, but I have been surrounded by such great teachers and administrators. That's why this is such a great place to be," she says.

Midlife choice: convertible or classroom?

Dombrosk came to the teaching profession a bit later in life, at age 46 in 1999.

"I joke that while most people at that age are looking for a red convertible I became a teacher," he says.

Prior to teaching, Dombrosk worked in a variety of private-sector jobs, including on the 1984 presidential campaign for Walter Mondale, and in marketing and information systems for the Minnesota Medical Association.

Dombrosk admits the career change was a result of midlife reassessment.

"I hit a point — at midlife — where I was looking forward and looking backward, and looking back, I had a number of teachers that had an impact on my life, and I decided I wanted to have the opportunity to do the same," he says.

North High principal Greg Nelson says the school is fortunate to have an outstanding staff, and says Dombrosk is "a fabulous teacher" who is well deserving of the Minnesota Teacher of the Year Award.

"He deeply cares about students. He learns with them. He gives students ownership of learning," Nelson says.

Nelson recalls a visit to Dombrosk's world religions course and watching as the teacher started a brainstorming session with students, asking them what they wanted to learn more about. One student, he says, looked fearful that perhaps the principal caught the teacher doing something wrong — as though asking the teens about their interests indicated Dombrosk didn't have a solid enough plan.

Nelson, who nominated Dombrosk for teacher of the year, says it's just one of many examples of the type of teacher Dombrosk is — someone who is wholly committed to getting students interested and engaged in learning.

"One of my concerns with history is I don't want them to just memorize times and dates," Dombrosk says. "I'd like students to come out of the course and look at the world and understand it better."

In addition to world religions, Dombrosk teaches world history, and has previously taught courses in U.S. history, European history, U.S. government and economics.

At 61, Dombrosk, says he has no intention of retiring just yet. He says he enjoys his work as a teacher and feels he is making a difference. Dombrosk is humble about being named a semifinalist for Minnesota Teacher of the Year, and says he is honored to be among a group of dedicated core teachers at the high school.

"I think I'll be teaching for another four or five years, but I'd like to go out strong, while I'm still making a difference," he says.
Joshua Nielsen can be reached at or 651-748-7822.

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