FAIRMONT - Walking into Patti Strukel's classroom, you notice a couple of things. The students are relaxed, yet attentive. They aren't afraid to ask questions, and she answers them, making sure the students fully understand.
Strukel has taught 10th grade American history at Fairmont High School for the past 15 years, and this year, the Fairmont Education Association has named her their Teacher of the Year. Though she has been nominated in the past, receiving the honor was humbling.
"I work with dozens of people every day who are so deserving of accolades," she said.
Growing up on a dairy farm in the rural Winthrop/Lafayette area of Minnesota, her love of history began in elementary school, where some of her teachers were passionate about the subject. Her parents led family trips to state historic sites, which further nurtured her interest. She attended the University of Minnesota-Morris, graduating in 1986.
Facing five sections of history classes, totalling 150 students, could be daunting, but Strukel embraces the task.
"I really have grown to love that age of students," she said. "I think they are better critical thinkers than a lot of people give them credit for."
Delivering the same lesson throughout the day still requires changes. Strukel said she "makes adjustments all day" with her lessons, adapting her topic to keep it fresh and interesting.
Since earning her master's degree in curriculum and instruction five years ago, Strukel has revamped her teaching method to include the "why" of events, not just the "when."
For example, her focus with tests is not how many answers are correct: "It's to find out how students understand big ideas."
Currently, her classes are studying the Civil War, specifically how the difference between the North and South economics led to the conflict. Students used fake Twitter from the opposing perspectives to help grasp the concept.
"She gets into their world," Kim Niss, principal at Fairmont High School, said about Strukel. "She's constantly learning herself, and the kids are seeing the rewards."
Teaching can have its low points, "when a student shuts you out," Strukel said, but there also are benefits.
"To see that light bulb go on - to see that moment a student really gets it" is what keeps her coming back to the classroom.
"Learning for a student doesn't always happen in your finite time schedule," she said.
Strukel and her husband Joe, live in Huntley with their sons, Grant and Carson. Joe also teaches at FHS - his social studies classroom is right next to his wife's.
"Some of the best professional development for me is the drive to and from work," she said.