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Published October 14, 2009, 12:00 AM

Ag teacher named finalist for Iowa’s Excellence in Education award

SIBLEY, Iowa — Sibley-Ocheyedan High School agriculture instructor Mike Earll has been named a runner-up in Iowa’s 2009 Excellence in Education award. More than 70 teachers across the state were nominated for the honor.

By: Julie Buntjer, Worthington Daily Globe

SIBLEY, Iowa — Sibley-Ocheyedan High School agriculture instructor Mike Earll has been named a runner-up in Iowa’s 2009 Excellence in Education award. More than 70 teachers across the state were nominated for the honor.

Earll will be recognized at an awards ceremony and banquet Tuesday, at Hy-Vee Hall in downtown Des Moines. He will be accompanied by 13 of his high school FFA members, all of whom will go on to the National FFA Convention in Indianapolis, Ind., following the ceremony.

In his 30th year of teaching — 29 at Sibley-Ocheyedan High School — Earll was nominated for the award by former student Kristine Zylstra, who now teaches in Cherokee, Iowa. In the nomination letter she submitted, Zylstra spoke of Earll as not just a teacher, but a mentor.

“He knows the value of learning through experiencing and does his best to ensure an enormous variety of experiences for his students,” she wrote. “His personality and character are modeled for students, which is the best type of example they can have.”

Zylstra now has a daughter in Earll’s agriculture classes and FFA program, and said he “teaches students how to dream, and then helps them go on and work toward living out that dream.”

“I cannot say enough to make you fully understand what Mike Earll does for his students. I can only tell you how respected he is by anyone who has come in contact with him,” she wrote. “He goes above and beyond the duties he is paid for in his teaching contract, and I truly believe that his real reward is knowing and seeing, every day, that his passion reaps great rewards for his students.”

The Excellence in Education award is sponsored by the Iowa State Education Association, the Iowa Farm Bureau, WHO Radio, KDSM Fox 17 and Staples. As a finalist, Earll will receive a gift certificate to Staples.

“This award is truly about recognizing the educators who work hard on a daily basis and rarely get the recognition they so richly deserve,” said Chris Bern, president of the ISEA, in a press release. “All of the nominations are a testament to the dedication and compassion Iowa educators have for their students and demonstrate how educators go above and beyond the scope of their work and change the lives of the students they teach.”

Earll, who quickly admitted that he’d rather talk about his students than himself, said he was really surprised about the nomination and honored to be selected as a finalist.

A 1975 graduate of Sibley High School, Earll returned to his alma mater and began building membership in the FFA chapter even through the farm crisis of the 1980s. He recalled some sage advice he was given back then from a recruiter at Iowa Lakes Technical College — to look at teaching leadership, cooperative skills and confidence-building.

“He said, ‘If you do that, I think your chapter will be successful,’” recalled Earll.

While agriculture is and has always been the base of education in Earll’s classroom, he tries to find activities in which all of his students can find their niche.

“That’s what’s unique about the FFA,” he said. “We’re able to do a lot of these different things that other classes maybe couldn’t do. We changed our focus from a farming-type class to something that would help kids develop confidence, help them develop leadership.”

The Sibley-Ocheyedan FFA Chapter has long been one of the largest FFA chapter’s in the state. However, with declining numbers in the school district, Earll has seen his in-school membership drop below 100 this year for the first time in a long while. Including the out-of-school memberships, Earll still has a following of 125 in the FFA.

Working with kids from the time they are freshman FFA members through their senior year and beyond is one of the greatest things Earll likes about his job in education.

“I have an advantage over a lot of other teachers,” he said. “Through the FFA, we’re able to keep the kids. You get to see them grow, you get to see them mature and you get to see them develop their goals and all they want to accomplish.”

Earll said his proudest moments are seeing a shy freshman come to class and, over the course of a year or two, to see them come out of their shell and excel.

His greatest challenge is finding the time to do it all. He doesn’t like the cookie-cutter approach to education, and said teachers need to “meet students where they’re at.”

“I think the biggest frustration is not having enough time to get the things done that you really feel are important,” Earll said. “It’s hard to clock in and clock out at a certain time. You work until you get the activities done.”

Earll has the support of his family so that he can put in the extra time and effort it takes to reach his students. His wife Mary is the K-12 librarian at S-O Public Schools. The couple has two sons, David, who is a student at the University of Arizona-Tempe pursuing a master’s degree in music performance, and Josh, a sophomore at S-O High School.