Monica Steinmetz was in the middle of sanitizing the desks in her classroom at St. Francis of Assisi when she got the call that she was being recognized as an outstanding teacher.

It took her a minute to realize what the call was about, even after she realized who was calling. Earlier this summer, she had recommended a number of her former students for achievement awards. So when the company called, she thought it was about them. She soon learned otherwise.

“It was emotional,” she said.

Steinmetz, a sixth-grade teacher with Rochester Catholic Schools, has been recognized with the 2020 WEM Outstanding Educator Award from the WEM Foundation and the Synergy and Leadership Exchange.

The award recognizes "exemplary teachers who support, inspire and assist students to attain greater learning as evidenced by student achievement," according to a release.

Newsletter signup for email alerts

Along with the recognition, Steinmetz received $15,000. She has a few organizations she wants to share the winnings with, although she doesn’t want to name them yet.

Steinmetz has been teaching at St. Francis her entire career, which is entering its 31st year. At this point, she’s taught the children of her former students.

“She was encouraging and understanding, and helped us realize that some of the bumps we experienced with our 6th-grader were a normal part of the pre-teen experience,” a parent said of Steinmetz in a statement from the Synergy and Leadership Exchange. “Her wisdom and insight helped us be a better parent.”

Steinmetz doesn’t know who initially nominated her. However, learning that she had received the award was only the latest milestone in a longer process.

In 2018, Steinmetz was notified that someone had nominated her for the WEM Teacher Achievement Award, which gave her the chance to apply for it. In 2019, she was notified that she was the recipient of the regional teacher achievement award. But, by the time she learned in 2020 that she had won at the state level, she had forgotten about it to some degree.

“It was a complete surprise; it was no longer really on my mind,” Steinmetz said.

Tilting the spotlight in another direction, she said the award is actually a reflection of the Rochester Catholic Schools system. She knows she works within a system where she can reach out to others for help when she needs it.

“There are kids who sometimes don’t connect with you,” Steinmetz said. “If I’m not connecting well, then I ask my teaching partner: ‘Can you help me?’”

Even though she’s not afraid to recruit as much help as she needs, Steinmetz has been finding ways to connect with students for decades. Even during a year when teachers have had to rise up higher than ever to make their classrooms work safely, she has found ways to make a real impact for her students.

For her, building relationships is something that needs to come first. Once she has that foundation, the academics fall into place.

One of the things she focuses on in addition to academics is social-emotional learning. On Fridays, she’ll have her students send her an email. She’ll ask them “How was your week?” She’ll also ask them, “Is there anything you think I should know that you didn’t get to tell me?”

That social-emotional learning can also come through what she calls "talk time," which is when she allows the students to catch up with one another.

She also watches for signs that she may need to address something.

“The mask covers facial expressions right now, but that’s another piece I use a lot with social-emotional learning: I watch the eyes,” Steinmetz said. “And I’ve come to peace with asking hard questions sometimes of students instead of just walking away when I see something that doesn’t seem right.”