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Outstanding teacher is a DL graduate

White Bear Lake student Victoria Von De Linde, right, nominated Detroit Lakes native Wendy Suoja as Teacher of the Year. Photo courtesy of the White Bear Press.

The she may wear orange and black on the outside, but Wendy Suoja said she’s a Laker at heart.

Suoja was crowned White Bear Lake Teacher of the Year earlier this month, and says that if it weren’t for her education and teachers in Detroit Lakes, she wouldn’t be where she’s at today.

“I’m a DL girl. I wear orange and black, but hidden underneath, my underoos are my Laker pride,” she said with a laugh. “I like to think this is because of what I received in DL, so it should be a celebration of what’s happening in the schools in Detroit Lakes. Or what did in ’92.”

A 1992 graduate of Detroit Lakes High School, Suoja, whose parents Don and Patt Wagner still live in Detroit Lakes, attended Holy Rosary School also.

As a choir director now, Suoja said, she’s always facing her students, so when she had to take her turn facing the audience to receive her Teacher of the Year honor, it was a bit more unnerving.

“Getting a standing ovation, all those people watching, it’s so humbling. It’s almost embarrassing. You just want to say, ‘stop, sit down, let’s carry on to the next thing.’ It’s really humbling.”

Her husband, Kevin, and their two children and her parents were able to attend the ceremony where she was named Teacher of the Year.

Getting interested in band, choir

She started playing flute in band before fourth grade, riding her bike to Lincoln school for lessons.

“I love that I connected so well with my band teachers. Mr. Sloan was awesome, Mr. Johnson was awesome, Mr. Hanson, Mr. Gaffney.

“Mr. Hanson would chuck pencils at my stand to scare me because I talked too much as a flute (player),” she said with a laugh. “And I still wanted to be a band director.”

As a flute player, she was always in the front row and got to have a little more connection to the teachers.

“I always thought it would be fun to be on the other side of the podiums and be able to lead musicians like they did.”

Besides being involved in band, she was also a part of her Holy Rosary Church choir, and then in high school got involved with the theater, musicals, choir and Laker Singers. Mary Otto and Kathy Larson were major influences during that time, she said.

“I was able to immerse myself in the program, and the teachers, Mrs. Larson in particular, Mr. Gaffney in particular, really gave me leadership roles.”

She helped teach flute lessons to elementary students. She helped choreograph components of the musicals and Madrigal Dinners. She was the majorette for the marching band.

“When I started college, I had more experience working with kids and being in a conductor role than people who had graduated.”

She double majored in band and choir, not knowing for sure which she wanted to pursue as a career.

“It was a huge undertaking. I thought there would be classes that would transfer, but really, you don’t. I took 28 credits my last two years and summer school and I was on the Dean’s List.”

Getting to White Bear Lake

“I wanted to be in a district that was a little larger. My first two jobs were in smaller towns,” she said.

Her first was a teaching position was in Virginia, Minn., where she taught mostly choir and her second was in Wheaton where she taught band.

“In my heart of hearts, I knew I wanted to teach choir, but I also wanted to teach band, so I could say I taught and it wasn’t just on my resume.”

As a young graduate — College of Saint Benedict and Saint Johns University — she said she wanted something bigger — but not too far from home either.

“Although I wanted to spread my wings, I didn’t really want to go too far in terms of the community sense,” she said with a laugh. “Laker power has got some heat behind it and I wanted to find a district that was like that.”

She also wanted a bigger district because of the opportunities offered to the students.

Though she knew she wanted to teach choir, she was hired in White Bear Lake as a band teacher. She went through the interview process, and at the end, since the district was hiring multiple positions, they asked if she wanted to teach band or choir. She chose choir. They sunk in their chairs, she said.

She called later to reassure them that she wanted the job, whether it was choir or band. They hired her for band, and one year later, she transferred over to choir. She has been teaching choir for the last 15 years. But she’s also been teaching band lessons all but the last two years as well.

She’s been directing the musicals in White Bear Lake — and pit band for some shows — but there was a time, of course, where she was on the stage.

“I was not in my first musical. I auditioned and did not make it in,” she said of high school.

But she made it in after that and was hooked. She said senior year she was a lead in “Guys and Dolls” and that was fun, but probably the favorite two productions she was involved with were community shows, “Joseph” — where she helped with the choreography — and “West Side Story.”

Being nominated

She had no idea until she got the letter that she had been chosen as a finalist for Teacher of the Year, and that her student Victoria Von De Linde had nominated her.

“She talked about how her self-confidence grew being in the program and how connected I am with the kids and how approachable I am. I’m here all the time.

“If they ever need anything, they can just look in the parking lot because my car is probably there — by its lonely self,” she said with a laugh.

From there, Suoja had to fill out a resume, list of awards and answer about a dozen questions about her teaching strategies and philosophies. Fifty-five teachers were nominated and then the list was narrowed to six.

Each of the top six then had an interview with a panel of 20 teachers, students, former teachers, former students, administrators, parents, community members.

“You can’t really prepare, but you try. I felt I was ready as can be — you are who you are, so here we are and be yourself. I like to be prepared and think out my answers but I laughed because the one question that I absolutely did not think at all about was ‘tell me about yourself.’ I was like, ‘can we skip this? Check out my resume! Where’s question No. 2?’

“I had no idea. I thought, ‘really? Really, Suoja? Tell me about yourself is the one you screw up? That’s awesome.’”

Having to review her profession throughout the process, Suoja said it gave her a chance to “take time and look at what I do and what I believe in and when do we do that. It’s been a really neat process to be able to do that.”

She will now be nominated for the state honor and have to put together her portfolio for next year.

As for White Bear Lake, she’ll continue to tend to her choir duties and all the other programs and events she’s involved in. Listening to Suoja talk for even five minutes about her job, one can tell two things — she loves her job, and she has a lot of things going on at once.

“It keeps it fresh. I’m definitely not bored. There is no boredom or monotony in my life, and I’d rather have that.”

A connection to home

Suoja decided to create an alum theater showcase in the Cities, an idea she took straight out of Detroit Lakes.

“I model everything I do, quite honestly, from Detroit Lakes.”

She took part in the alum show with Mark Potvin in Detroit Lakes as a fundraiser the Holmes Theatre.

“It’s amazing the tools good old DL gives people. You don’t realize it.”

When she got to White Bear Lake, there was one set dad helping, one costume mom who helped rent them and no director. Taking notes from Detroit Lakes, she got more parents involved, got someone to do hair and makeup, found the store to sell tickets, etc.

“I’ve got all these DL-isms surrounding me every single day. It’s a huge, huge compliment to know that when you’re in upper Minnesota and just kind of going through the motions, we’re in the Twin Cities and there was no programming (when she started), nothing, like there is in Detroit Lakes, and I had to develop that.”

She still makes it back to Detroit Lakes on a regular basis — making sure to hit up Zorbaz and Lakeside — to make sure her children have the same experiences she had growing up here. She also enjoys seeing the teachers who gave her her start.

“Kathy Larson is still a very dear friend. Mark Everson comes and videotapes my shows every year. Every once in a while I run into Mr. Gaffney.”

With all of her accomplishments, Suoja said there’s still more she plans to have before her career is over.

“There are still some irons sitting next to the fire I haven’t thrown in yet. But, I’m pretty happy with where I’m at.”