Alumni focus: An open door and an open heart

2019 North Dakota Teacher of the Year Kayla (Delzer) Dornfeld, ’08, ’14, lives out passion for teaching through being a light for others

With her innovative approach to education, Kayla Delzer Dornfeld has quickly risen to a top educator in the country. Photo by Sam Melquist.

When Mapleton, North Dakota, third grade teacher Kayla (Delzer) Dornfeld, ’08, ’14, received news that she had been chosen to receive the Young Alumni Achievement Award from her alma mater last year, she was floored. “I had been at the College of Education table at the event the year before and told my mom that getting the award was on my bucket list. And then a year later I got it! Then, the same day I was getting that award I got the phone call that I had been selected as 2019 North Dakota Teacher of the Year! They are both huge honors,” Dornfeld exclaimed!

Huge … and well-deserved. The New York Times recently called Dornfeld “One of the tech-savviest teachers in the United States.” In the seven short years since she began tinkering with technology in her classroom, Dornfeld has become a household name in the world of teaching. Her personal blog, TopDogTeaching.com, has 2.5 million views; her Instagram page @topdogteaching has 84,000 followers and counting, and her Facebook fan page @topdogteaching has an impressive 9,000 people “liking” her posts.

In addition to being named 2019 North Dakota Teacher of the Year, Dornfeld’s accolades include Top 100 Innovative Educator in the World, TEDx speaker, and 2017 and 2018 Global Hundred Award winner, to name a few. While it’s all humbling, the awards and achievements are not what matters most to Dornfeld. “It’s all because of my kids! They are amazing. Every speech that I do I talk about how this isn’t about me. This is about my students,” Dornfeld said.

When the Lakota, North Dakota, native began teaching 12 years ago she explains that she thought she needed to know everything.  As time marched on in her career, she began teaching to the beat of a different drum. “My teaching has evolved, and my focus has changed from mastering the curriculums to really getting to know each kid.  I tell my students, “I love you.” What I thought was teaching isn’t teaching. What matters is opening my heart and being vulnerable and real with them.”

Dornfeld believes in trying new and innovative ideas and is credited for starting flexible seating in the classroom. “I firmly believe in giving the kids a choice. Flexible seating doesn’t mean a lack of structure. Giving them choice of where to sit is a game changer,” Dornfeld remarked.

She also gives them a choice when it comes to picking a book to read or subject to write about. “We’ve started genius hour where I ask the kids, “What are you passionate about? What do you want to study that’s not in the curriculum? Most of the time 3rd graders don’t know what they are passionate about, so I ask them, “What do you love?” Offering kids more choices makes a world of difference,” Dornfeld explains.

Each year, Dornfeld gives the 5 Love Languages quiz to her students to kick off the academic year. She explains that knowing what is most important to each one of them, whether it be quality time or words of affirmation, helps her connect on a deeper level with each individual student.  “Grades are important, sure, but as a mom and teacher I care more about what kind of a person I am sending out into the world,” Dornfeld said.

In 2019, Dornfeld became North Dakota Teacher of the Year, a platform that has opened new doors to serve kids in and outside the classroom. Photo by Sam Melquist.

Dornfeld attends her students’ birthday parties, sporting events, has barbeques in her own backyard for her students, and, when she got married last spring, she entertained a very large child to adult ratio at her wedding.  “I invited my entire class to my wedding and every student in the entire school to the dance. If I have taught them, they are my kids,” she smiled.

With a love for kids and teaching that is contagious, it’s no wonder Dornfeld has become famous amongst educators across the nation. With a public speaking career that’s flourishing, she is often asked if she plans to leave the classroom for the stage fulltime. “I love teaching. I love the kids and have no plans of quitting. When I speak, I want my stories to be in real time. The credibility of being in the classroom is really important,” she said.

Becoming 2019 North Dakota Teacher of the Year has opened new doors for Dornfeld that she says have allowed her to be an advocate for kids on a larger level. She’s worked with the governor and state superintendent of public instruction and feels passionate about being a voice for all kids in the state. “I feel like being Teacher of the Year has elevated my voice and also exposed me more to what’s important in all schools across the state,” she said.

Married to a Lutheran minister, Dornfeld explains that her faith is extremely important to her. And, when it comes down to it, her platform is truly about grace and love. “I wholeheartedly love them all. I teach my students what grace is and that it means forgiveness and giving someone the opposite of what they deserve. If you give a child grace, it all works out. The kids who are the hardest are the ones who need grace most,” she concluded.

As for what’s next, Dornfeld, says that is out of her hands. “I am seeing what God has next for me because none of this has been in my plans. So, I will listen and obey and do it bravely,” she said.

About the Author:Leanna Ihry

Leann Ihry, ’02, is an Impact Writer at the University of North Dakota Alumni Association and Foundation. Since graduating from UND with a degree in communication in 2002, Ihry, a native of Leeds, N.D., has had an extensive career in public/community affairs and local television media in Grand Forks.