Kendall Gonzalez always knew she wanted to teach. As I chatted with the 2022 Minnesota Teacher of the Year award finalist on a gray afternoon, her demeanor was just as bright as her colorful kindergarten classroom, and it was clear that she’s exactly where she belongs.
Exceptionally humble, Gonzalez speaks with a sunny, learned confidence that she would likely attribute to her “amazing” colleagues and mentors at Matoska International IB World School. The Shoreview native and daughter of two local educators has taught at Matoska for over a decade. In 2021, she was chosen by White Bear Lake Area Educators (WBLAE) as their Teacher of the Year. From there, WBLAE nominated her for the state honor, where she was selected from dozens of teachers across Minnesota as one of just 11 finalists.
“It’s very exciting and a little overwhelming. I wasn’t expecting to be here at all,” Gonzalez says of the experience. “Truly, I just feel that [this honor] is representative of all the people that I’ve learned from and not just one person.”
With her hair tied back and a rainbow lanyard around her neck, Gonzalez certainly looked the part of a beloved kindergarten teacher as we spoke over Zoom. But it’s the way her laughter spills into heartfelt words that says the most about what fellow educators see in her.
“She is a very genuine, caring, loving, kind person,” says Abby Kath, WBLAE Teacher of the Year committee co-chair. Kath says that she admires “how passionate [Gonzalez] is about being a steady presence for her students in all aspects of their lives and her commitment to building long standing relationships outside of her classroom walls.”
Through many weeks and months of interviews, surveys and applications for the local and state awards, Gonzalez says she’s most enjoyed the opportunity to reflect on her approach to teaching. “A lot of the process is really just asking you to look at what you’re doing in your classroom and your beliefs on certain educational policies,” she says. “It’s been a really good chance to just reflect on what I do and why I do it.”
One of the main values Gonzalez has recognized in herself is embracing a play-based approach to learning that focuses on “the whole child.”
“When you leave college, they’ve taught you so many strategies to teach the kids how to read and write and do math. But then you get into this space and you see it’s really [about] the whole child,” Gonzales says.
Gonzalez has spent nearly her entire career teaching kindergarteners at Matoska. Amid such a “close group of educators,” Gonzalez says she has felt more comfortable sharing ideas and stepping into some of those more leadership positions. And she doesn’t see herself leaving the classroom—or Matoska—anytime soon.
“People who have grown up [in White Bear Lake] talk about this all the time, about how everyone stays. And I think that same mentality is also true for the teachers. They come, and they stay,” Gonzalez says. “That community feel is what’s really special about White Bear.”