Lessons in learning
In less than two years, membership in the the Winner, South Dakota FFA chapter has nearly tripled. Enrollment in ag classes has skyrocketed. The reason? Wyatt Dejong, high school ag teacher, FFA advisor and Winner High School graduate.
“I love being pushed outside of my comfort zone, and I love to help students and adults do that too.” says DeJong. “I learned many years ago that there is no growth in a comfort zone, and there is no comfort in a growth zone. We must train ourselves to be ready to get uncomfortable because that is the only way in which we will grow and challenge ourselves to become the person that we have fully been created to be.”
In the early days of his employment, DeJong worked closely with the district’s superintendent Bruce Carrier, and principal Gerald Witte to build his department’s curriculum, hoping to engage the student body and meet the needs of their mostly agricultural community. The course load includes: Introduction to Agriculture, Food, and Natural Resources (AFNR), Animal Science, Ag Business and Marketing, Natural Resources, Wildlife and Fisheries, Ag Communications and Journalism, Agronomy, Horticulture, and an advanced animal science course during the summer, all of which are taught by DeJong.
“Wyatt’s classes have added a lot of variety – we didn’t have that 4-5 years ago. It’s really increased interest. And the kids like him.” says Dan Aaker, Winner High School’s assistant principal, activities advisor, and football coach. “He is passionate about his job, and he is a go-getter, no question about that!” Aaker adds.
According to DeJong, his enthusiasm for agriculture began with his upbringing. He was raised just twenty-eight miles north and slightly east of Winner, on his family’s beef cattle ranch, which runs mostly Maine-Anjou, Angus, and Simmental seedstock cattle. All four of the DeJong kids were active on the ranch starting at a very young age. The family showed at several local, state, regional, and national shows. DeJong credits these events, in part, with making them a tight-knit family and says, “[The livestock shows] would be our family vacations in many ways.”
Perhaps it is no surprise then, that DeJong says his biggest interest growing up was livestock, specifically learning and tracking records including multi-trait selection and genetics, and showing his family’s cattle. While in high school he participated in FFA himself and he served on the American Junior Maine-Anjou Association Board of Directors.
In college at South Dakota State University he competed on the livestock judging team, while majoring in agriculture.
The lessons learned traveling and working with his family, as well as his participation in the National FFA Organization taught him about life, leadership, communication, teamwork, and the world. These early opportunities, and his love for the subject of agriculture, are the deep well he draws from as an educator.
“I love the challenge and the opportunity to get [students] excited about learning [through] experiences that help shape their character and perspective on the world around them, and instilling in them a determination to do what is right by struggling to always live above the line in a world that makes it challenging to do so.”
He continues, “My philosophy of teaching is that I teach [my students] truth and love them genuinely.”
When it comes to curriculum design, DeJong believes that new encounters are crucial to learning. To that end, he provides extensive opportunities to his students both in and outside the classroom. One example of this is something he calls “Ag Tours.” These typically are one-day events, mostly on weekends. Last year some of these day trips included visits to a bull stud, cattle sales, fish hatcheries, a local producer that was doing embryo collection and implantation, a large custom trailer manufacturing plant that makes and markets products around the world, and a local technical school.
The advanced animal science course DeJong offered over the summer is another example of this type of experiential learning. “The students had to get forty hours of classroom instruction and sixty hours of hands-on experience with a bred heifer that I supplied for them to use this summer. Their final project was to exhibit at the county fair and also be interviewed by three local producers on the knowledge that they gained about the production of beef cattle.”
The summer course resulted in several participants seriously contemplating a future in agriculture, and they aren’t alone. Over the course of the past year, DeJong has had many students who previously hadn’t considered a career in agricultural realize how important it is and, he says, “make major steps toward a lifetime focus of agricultural involvement.”
DeJong shares the credit for this achievement with those around him. “I am blessed with a supportive administration and school board [who] put their trust in me to try something completely new,” he says.
The job is not without it’s challenges, however. “I know that kids have a hunger to learn, but most of the time they need someone to give them ‘permission’ to learn. What I mean by that is that kids are growing up in a world where it isn’t cool to really care about anything…especially school, learning, and even others. It definitely isn’t cool to try something new and step out of your comfort zone. This has caused me to be much more aggressive in how I get kids to do things…I get to be their scapegoat because I am the reason that they have to [participate]” DeJong says.
What does he like best about teaching? In a word: students. “I get to teach the truth about agriculture and life…I always remind myself of why I am put on this earth and my purpose of making an impact and not merely an impression on others. I firmly believe that God has called me to give of myself and strive each day to help those around me – especially young people.”
FFA made the difference
The letters FFA stand for “Future Farmers of America” though the intercurricular organization is not intended just for those interested in farming. According to the organization’s official website, “FFA also welcomes members who aspire to careers as teachers, doctors, scientists, business owners and more.” The website goes on to say that, “the National FFA Organization remains committed to the individual student, providing a path to achievement in premier leadership, personal growth and career success through agricultural education.”
Wyatt DeJong can attest through personal experience that FFA is meeting these goals. He says, “Being active in FFA has truly helped me develop my skills and passion to become an ag teacher.”
Upon graduating from Winner High School in 2008, DeJong served as the 2008-2009 SD State FFA Secretary. It was in this position he first realized his dream of becoming an ag teacher. He later served as the 2010-2011 National FFA Central Region Vice President. His role as a national officer was what “sealed the deal for me in my determination to follow that dream,” he says. “I was able to travel to 33 different states over the course of about 310 days of the year leading workshops and speeches for mostly high school students. In my travels, I was able to hone my abilities as a presenter, communicator, and connector which has helped me in the classroom.”