By Christina Brey
WEAC Media Relations Officer
It takes more than knowing your content to be a great teacher. You have to connect. It’s a fine balance of art and science, and it’s what’s earned WEAC member Roger King recognition as Wisconsin High School Teacher of the Year and our representative to the National Teacher of the Year program.
King has 31 years of agriscience teaching under his belt all at Holmen High School and he’s still making connections through learning. At the heart of his practice is the belief that you don’t have to grow up on a farm to embrace agriscience. The gate is always wide open, and that leads to unexpected paths.
Holmen High School senior Jameson Marcou discovered that his freshman year, when he reluctantly enrolled in an agriscience course. It wasn’t long before King found a way to inspire him.
“One day, Mr. King asked me what I was doing the next Saturday. He told me the FFA needed me – they needed someone to compete with them, and so I agreed to help,” said Marcou, who found himself on an early-morning bus with a crash course in making corsages and boutonnieres. “I didn’t know what I was getting into, but we made it to state and it was fun.
“There are so many stories like that,” said Marcou, now a vice president of the Holmen FFA and involved in animal and other projects. “Mr. King won’t stop until you find something that will make you happy – whether horses or mechanical grease. He even tries to get the middle schoolers involved. I’m bummed I didn’t start in middle school.
“He never stops,” Marcou continued. “I came to school at 6:30 this morning, and he was here. He is at all our events, and sometimes we won’t leave until 10 o’clock at night. He has his own family and farm, but he still stays.
“Mr. King brings knowledge and connections to better the program,” Marcou said. “His style is hands-on, definitely, rather than pencil-and-paper.”
“He is really busy,” agreed senior Paige Storlie. “But he doesn’t show it. If you need help, he makes time for you.”
Agriscience in schools
Storlie, who is running for FFA state office this summer, said King has inspired her to be a voice for the importance of agriculture education.
“In one of our Food for America events for elementary kids, someone asked where eggs came from,” Storlie said. “A lot of schools don’t have agriculture teachers anymore, and students don’t have the opportunity to learn where food comes from and how you grow it. That’s essential to know. That’s important.”
In fact, with Wisconsin’s public schools seeing some of the largest cuts to funding in the nation, communities are cutting non-tested programs – such as agriscience – at alarming levels. In schools that retain their programs, qualified agriscience teachers are often difficult to attract and keep as other districts vie for their expertise. While Holmen has retained an extensive program in large part due to staff efforts and community support, nearby schools have downsized or ended their programs.
But in Holmen, the Farm 2 School program thrives, providing locally grown food for the district’s lunch program. From raising chickens and calves to planting and harvesting potatoes, King oversees it all.
“Mr. King’s played a big part in my high school career,” said another FFA Vice President Laura Munger, who attends Holmen High School through open enrollment because of its agriscience program and plans to study pre-medicine or pre-veterinary science after graduation. “He goes out of his way to help you accomplish what you’re passionate about. He’s created a huge family here.”
And it felt like family when the FFA piled onto the bus for the National FFA convention in Louisville, Kentucky. Fifty-seven people from southwestern Wisconsin were in tow, including King, 17 Holmen FFA members, two parents, two FFA Alumni members, two other Holmen FFA advisors and other representatives from five area schools.
A way of life
His class mirrors rural school culture. Sign-up sheets for concessions line the walls, as King – who also coaches freshman football – oversees them to raise money for the FFA program. At the back of the room, dehydrators line the wall emitting the smell of jerky as students learn to make their own snacks.
He cooks venison bologna for lunch in his classroom while a steady stream of students and staff pose questions about upcoming conferences and projects. He takes time to answer a text from an agriscience teacher in another district with a question about lighting in a school greenhouse.
King grew up on a Mosinee dairy farm, and that central Wisconsin value of neighbor-helping-neighbor is woven into his classroom. Students and community partners know they can drop in, study, eat lunch or share stories.
“It’s a really unique connection we have here,” King said. “It’s something that doesn’t happen accidentally. It’s built on mutual trust and benefit for the greater good.”
King’s commitment to students goes beyond his classroom doors. He and his wife Diane open their small farm to students who need a place to raise animals or work on projects and volunteer in the school garden. Diane is employed in the school district’s nutrition services, grew up on a farm herself, and is the FFA co-advisor. The pair has raised four children, each of whom has attended Holmen schools and been involved in community 4-H and FFA.
“I believe you’re missing out as an educator if you don’t have that community connection,” King said.
Respect for teachers, agriscience in schools
King will use his platform as a Teacher of the Year to promote respect for the teaching professions.
“Educators are a valued part of everyone’s success in a community,” he said. “I don’t care who you are – you had a teacher that helped you along the way. If you didn’t do something right, a teacher was there to assist you.
“We’re taking the job of an educator for granted,” he continued. “We need to look at that and re-assess.”
That belief also drives King’s desire to provide mentoring to the next generation of teachers – including rebuilding Wisconsin’s corps of agriscience teachers. King helped write the Wisconsin agriscience education standards and evaluates other schools’ programs to make sure they are high quality. He is active in the Wisconsin Association of Agriculture Educators and the National Association of Agriculture Educators, which share common ground with WEAC in working for solutions to crushing student loan debt that can deter promising educators from becoming teachers. “It’s about problem-solving together,” he said. “Helping each other.”
He’ll also bring awareness for agriculture in schools. “Agriculture programs need to stay in schools so children know where their food comes from,” King said, setting up for his next student test by emptying a plastic tub containing 50 essential pieces of equipment to keep animals healthy onto lab tables.
King said he never forgets that the next student who walks through his door may be one whose life he can change. “My hope when they leave is that they’ve seen something that spurred them in the classroom, they’ve utilized it and it drives their thought process,” he said.
And, while recognition at the state Capitol and the promise of plenty of national acclaim this year are exciting, perhaps the most fitting honor happened this fall when he rode in the Holmen Homecoming Parade with banners and fanfare.
“Mr. King deserves the recognition,” Storlie said. “He loves teaching. Some days I spend more time with Mr. and Mrs. King than my own family.”
“This room is like my second home,” added Munger. “It’s because of Mr. King. He loves teaching.”
“I do love teaching,” agreed King. “I live what I teach.”