2 East Side teachers finalists for Teacher of the Year

Bernetta Green

Eugenia Popa

The East Side has two teachers who are among the nine finalists for the Minnesota Teacher of the Year award: Bernetta Green, a fifth-grade teacher at Eastern Heights Elementary and Eugenia Popa, an English as a second language teacher at Harding High School. 

Green and Popa both have long, committed careers in teaching and strong passions for creating meaningful relationships with their students. 

The Minnesota Teacher of the Year will be announced during a banquet at the St. Paul RiverCentre on May 5. The award process started with a group of 168 candidates, which was cut to 40 semi-finalists, before the nine finalists were named.


St. Paul through and through

Green grew up in St. Paul and is a graduate of St. Paul Public Schools. She said her desire to become an educator came from the teachers she had as a kid. “I had good teacher role models.”

She said she knew as early as seventh grade that she wanted to be a teacher, explaining that because of her busing schedule, she would often arrive to school an hour early and teachers would let her spend the time correcting papers or helping in other ways. For her work, they’d reward her with free books or Hershey kisses.

Green was part of St. Paul Public School’s Minority Encouragement Program, which supported students of color interested in teaching, putting them in a designated track throughout middle and high school. After graduating, she attended the University of Minnesota for her degree in teaching and then came right back to St. Paul to begin work. 

This is Green’s 21st year of teaching, all of which has been spent at Eastern Heights teaching fifth grade. She said being an elementary teacher just seemed like a natural choice.

Green said she’s getting to the point now where she’s working with the children of former students, and she loves the instant connection she can make with them when she tells the kids that she had taught their parents.

She said she’s “very intentional” about building relationships with the younger kids at Eastern Heights, so that by the time they get to fifth grade, they know someone and have someone to turn to. 

Her joys

Colleen Watkins, whose daughter had Green as her teacher last year, nominated her for the award. She also volunteered with Green’s class to help with a number of field trips. 

“The biggest thing for our family is that she isn’t just a teacher, she becomes a part of your family,” Watkins said. “We love how she meets the children where they are.”

On a recent afternoon at Eastern Heights Elementary, students would stop and wave or say “Hi” as they passed Green in the hallway.

“This is joy for me — this is one of my former students, so just seeing them is like ...” Green smiled and sighed, waving to a kid she’d taught who had come by to pick up her younger sibling. She said she loves to see how her students have grown. Another of her joys are her co-workers, who Green described as family, with everyone supporting each other.

Outside of the classroom, Green spends her summers teaching professional development courses to colleagues through the St. Paul Federation of Educators. She also serves as an executive board member for the federation; she said that union work is another of her passions.

Green said one of the best parts of the profession is seeing students grow over the school year and seeing how far they’ve come in their academics. “It’s hard work, but it’s rewarding.”


Every student has worth

Popa has been an educator for more than 30 years. She started her career as an elementary-level teacher in her home country of Romania. She’s taught English as a second language at Harding High School for the past four years. 

She credits her own teachers as influencing her desire to to become one herself. “I had some amazing teachers, some were great role models.”

She said that in Romania, teaching is a highly respected and well-paid profession. Because her father died when she was young, Popa’s mother wanted to make sure she would be able to support herself after high school and backed her interest in being a teacher. She attended a specialty high school that was geared toward future teachers, making it so she could teach right away after graduation.

Popa began teaching at age 18, working at a Romanian elementary school for eight years. During that time she also went to college, where she studied languages, her passion. She eventually got a degree in Romanian literature, with a minor in English. 

In post-communist 1990s Romania, she was able to teach English as a foreign language for a few years before applying to a program that would bring her to teach in the United States.

In 1995, Popa came to the U.S. and set up in Minnesota, at first teaching at a Montessori school. In 1996 she got her first position with St. Paul Public Schools and has worked in the district ever since, working at a variety of its elementary and middle schools.

A unique teaching environment

Popa said Harding is one of the most unique schools at which to work in terms of its language levels. 

She explained that the school has high-rigor programming like International Baccalaureate courses, and is also a language academy site, which means it works with students who recently moved to the U.S. and have limited English language skills. 

Of the roughly 1,800 students who attend Harding, Popa said some 600 are identified as an English language learners at some level.

Popa works with about 100 students a day, many of whom come from countries where very little to no education was available to them. She co-teaches human geography and world history, working on kids’ language skills while also trying to catch them up in their education.

Emily Lockhart co-teaches human geography with Popa, and said that because of Popa’s own experience learning multiple languages, she knows what students are going through.

“Eugenia continuously finds ways to help students learn the academic language demands of our curriculum. She is observant of the cultural knowledge that is needed to understand certain words and phrases in a language,” Lockhart said. 

As an immigrant herself, Popa said she finds she’s able to better connect with students, understanding their struggles to adapt to the fast pace of American society while maintaining their own traditions. 

“They’re under a lot of stress,” she said, adding that some may be raising kids or have full-time jobs. Everyday, though, she added, they show up and give their best effort.

“The relationship with students comes first,” Popa said, pointing out that everyday she listens to their stories and serves as a safe person for them to come and talk to. “If I am to be the next Minnesota Teacher of the Year, I want to make sure I am an advocate for these students. For too long, they have been looked at from a deficit point of view. That’s not equitable”

Not only do students deserve a chance at an equitable and fair education, she said there’s a lot that she learns from them that others could benefit from knowing.

“They have rich experiences,” Popa said. “We have to keep listening to their stories, they have enormous potential. I love them dearly and they know that.”


–Marjorie Otto can be reached at 651-748-7816 or at eastside@lillienews.com.

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