Age: 39


Leigh Dornfeld knew at a young age that she’d likely become a teacher; she enjoyed children and babysitting, and she taught swimming lessons. After college, she taught elementary school and coached high school volleyball, but a move to central Minnesota offered an opportunity to work as the gifted and talented coordinator, and Dornfeld never looked back.

That was 14 years ago, and this school year marks her seventh year with the Moorhead Public School District. Her goal is to challenge students who are academically and intellectually gifted in a project-based setting with a focus on four Cs: collaboration, communication, creativity and critical thinking. Her role is to brainstorm a problem, then walk alongside students as they work toward a solution.

“This style of education covers 21st century learning skills, so we are getting these kids ready for jobs that don’t exist yet,” Dornfeld explained. “They do most of the work, and I help guide them once the project gets started.”

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As the gifted and talented coordinator, Dornfeld collaborates with community members or organizations to brainstorm ideas and possible projects, but she also finds inspiration elsewhere, specifically in nature and often when she’s hiking. The activity has become so therapeutic for Dornfeld that she’s started a women’s hiking group in the area called She Ascends. When it formed last November, the chapter was the seventh in the state of Minnesota, and the group meets monthly for a guided hike in a nearby state park. Information about planned activities is available on Instagram and Facebook at SheAscendsNorth(Clay County).

“We want to bond women together to help everyone realize our strengths,” Dornfeld said. “Hiking is a huge passion of mine; I can just go get in the woods to de-stress and decompress.”

Her passion for hiking is also being passed down to her children: 9-year-old daughter Svea and 8-year-old son Kieran.

“My son just comes alive hiking, and my daughter just relaxes,” Dornfeld explained, noting that her biggest role in the summer is being with her kids full time, relaxing and being outside as much as possible.

With the school year getting underway, Dornfeld is excited to get back in the classroom to see what creative solutions her students develop. Here’s a look at what her life as a mom and the gifted and talented coordinator involves.

Leigh Dornfeld is beginning her seventh year as the Gifted and Talented Coordinator for Moorhead Public Schools. Photo courtesy of Ten Little Chickens Photography
Leigh Dornfeld is beginning her seventh year as the Gifted and Talented Coordinator for Moorhead Public Schools. Photo courtesy of Ten Little Chickens Photography

What I love about my job is…

the constant change and creativity that I get to be part of and watch. Our projects are always changing, along with the environment, and the students I am working with. The best part of my job is seeing that little flicker of excitement in the student's eyes when they are really enjoying what they are learning and working on.

I want to teach all kids…

to have respect for each other, problem solve through disagreements, and effectively work toward solutions. These are the most important skills that I want them to walk away with when they leave our buildings to go out on their own.

What I have learned after years of teaching is…

being flexible and open to change are necessary. Have a plan, but be ready for the plan to change because it will! Also, that kids haven't changed. They are still the same and just want to be loved, noticed and appreciated for who they are.

My favorite thing about summer is…

all of it! The sun, the water, the play, and the time with my kids make me the happiest. We love to slow down and really enjoy it. Whether we are hiking, swimming, biking, etc., we do it with intention and don´t take it for granted.

I find inspiration…

during my down time, when I am relaxed, and when I am can be naturally curious in outdoor environments. I also surround myself with “idea people” to brainstorm projects for school. My friend Carrie Leopold from The Inspire Lab in Moorhead is my lifeline when it comes to helping to inspire me.

What I want people to know about hiking is…

it can bring peace and calm to your hectic life. It’s like free counseling! When I feel the pressure of life creeping in I hit the trail and let all of that stress go. If you have never heard of “forest bathing” look it up! And if you want to come hike with me check out my She Ascends Women's Hiking Page/Group on Facebook - She Ascends North (Clay County)!

I aim to empower my children and students by…

asking questions and giving them their power back. Children come to us to help them solve their problems. We can either just do it for them or we can teach them to do it for themselves. If you ask the right and strategic questions you can empower them to do their own thinking and problem solving. I want my children and students to think for themselves. They don't learn that unless you start by asking them what they think and then ask them what they are going to do.

I want to empower women by…

  • helping them find and keep their power

  • recognize their strengths and utilizing them in a positive way

  • using their voice to maintain healthy relationships

As women we are sometimes taught to give these things away in order to be compliant with gender stereotypes or to submit to powerful personalities. We can be true to ourselves without giving these away, but sometimes need to re-learn how to hold onto them when society teaches us they are not ours.

Unique names are important for kids because…

it creates immediate individuality. I love my kids´ names! (Dornfeld’s daughter’s name Svea is Scandanavian, and her son’s name Kieran is the Irish version of an East Indian name.)

I am curious about…

SO many things….we “google” all the time at our house. I am especially curious about history (I am a documentary nerd) or about real-life trials someone has been through and overcome. I love a great “campfire” discussion on random topics or better yet my friend Mindi Jenson and I have the BEST discussions on hikes together. I love it when we get lost in our own conversations because they go so deep that my mind can't get around the topic, so we have to slow down, back up, and try again.

I drink my coffee…

black and sometimes with a little butter. . .yum!

I feel proud when…

  • my kids snuggle up out of the blue and show affection to each other or me.
  • when I watch my students present their final products.
  • when I finish a really hard workout at my gym, EHP Crossfit.
  • when I look back at where I've been and how far I've come.
  • when I look around at the end of the day and see and feel my family next to me.

What I want students to remember about me and the time they spend working on projects in my classroom is…

that they learned how to be a team player, that they had fun, felt inspired, and had an overall positive experience. I also want them to walk away feeling understood and loved. I have approximately 200 students, but getting to have them multiple years in a row helps me get to know them on a deeper level. I hope they know that I genuinely care about them and LOVE my job because of them.

I enjoy collaborating with…

“ideas people”. I am a “closer” and good with organizing the final details. I am okay at coming up with the ideas, but it isn't my strongest quality. If you come up with the great idea I will tell you how we can execute it.

I dream about…

living on a lake someday with my partner Ty and our grown children coming home for visits often to enjoy family time. Quality time is really important to me, and it's the biggest gift I can give and one I appreciate to receive.