This month, we would like to introduce you to Riley Hintzsche, agriculture teacher at Streator Township High School, in Streator, Illinois. Riley has worked tirelessly to create a classroom environment where all of his students feel comfortable to be their true and authentic selves.
Number of years teaching: 7
Who/what inspired you to be an ag teacher? I grew up in a family of teachers, and immediately it was my father, John Hintzsche, who inspired me to be an agricultural educator. He taught high school ag for 34 years and I watched him constantly change and mold a program to assist in changing and molding the lives of kids. Although it was my father who originally inspired me, it was later in my first year of teaching that it locked in that this is the profession I wanted to be in. The spring of 2014, a massive, EF4 tornado leveled our family farm leaving nothing but the bare bones of a house and anything that was not carried away. I was eight hours away when it happened and left immediately to get back home. When I drove into our driveway, it wasn't just people I saw, it was many of my dad's past students that had become family. They did whatever they could to assist and help my parents get back on their feet. It really reminded me why agricultural education is so great and it is about the relationships you build. As I am just leaving my sixth year of teaching, the relationships I have built with students are just beginning to come full circle as I have been invited to weddings, been asked to be a part of collegiate graduations, and have earned a spot at my past students' table for countless dinners.
What motivates you to continue to teach ag? Today, what motivates me is my students, community, and friends. My students remind me that we are always building the next generation and every ounce of me that I can give them to be successful is truly rewarding. My community reminds me that “it takes a village.” Although I am blessed to receive compliments when I do something, I can't do it alone! It takes a village to raise these kids and to have parents trust me with their kids is an amazing feeling. My friends remind me that it's hard, but that's okay. Anything you love doing isn't going to be easy and when you have a hard day, you have the next day to turn it around and make it better.
What advice do you have for new teachers to create an inclusive and safe environment for your students to be their true, authentic selves? Being a new teacher can be extremely challenging! You are trying to learn a new routine, learn names, identify goals for your chapter, learn your kids and so much more. The first thing you can do is show your students you won't have all the answers, but you will work to find them. This will let them know that you will advocate for them. Try to also incorporate as much as you can into your classroom that will represent all of your students. One of my gay students brought me a gay pride flag and stuck it in my pencil holder on my desk. One of my Hispanic students brought me a Day of the Dead figurine that sits on the ledge by my window. Although there are more, these are just two examples of how I allow my students to see that I want to include them and provide them with a place that is comfortable. Because they were given to me by students, there is also a story there that I can tell other students. I have also found it important to have conversations, when conversations are needed. When you have a student who is struggling, not themselves, or has something going on, take that moment to pull that student aside in a safe environment and allow them to open up to you. Let them talk, vent, discuss, etc. This can work on so many different occasions. Ask that transgender student what they prefer to be called. Ask your student who you know doesn't have food at home how you can help. Remind your students that you see they are working hard and that you are proud of them. Each step that you take to incorporate and understand your students' lives, will allow them to understand they can live their authentic life within your room. Will it take time? Of course -- authenticity is a multi-step process. Meet them where they are and help them get to the end destination, whatever that may be.
What advice do you have for new teachers about being their true and authentic selves in the classroom? Why is that so important? This can be extremely difficult even for the most experienced teachers. Every class is a new dynamic, rhythm, and process. One small dynamic can make or break a student's personality in your class. For example, I remember I once had a student say “that's a plate full of diabetes” when referring to a plate of cookies. Immediately, my head turned to my diabetic student and I watched her immediately lock up and shut down. She continued to stay this way for the rest of the day. Anything can trigger a memory, issue, or problem that forces your students to not live their authentic selves. Although you can't control the actions or memories of students 100% of the time, you can remind your students that they have a place in your classroom. Show them that although you may never understand what they are going through, you can do next best thing and be the best advocate for them you can. I will never know the emotions that are tied with my students, but I can provide them with a open place to be their authentic selves. Maybe they are not authentic with everyone, maybe it's just you as their teacher. However, THAT right there is the first step they need to take the next.
What is your advice to the ag ed profession to make ag ed a welcoming place for everyone? A couple of years ago, I stood in front of STAR preservice teachers at the NAAE Annual Convention. I was asked to present on what it's like as a beginning teacher and why I entered the profession of teaching. As I began my conversation, I told them I wasn't meant to teach agricultural education. Many of them stared at me with an uncertain look on their face almost wondering why I was there and why I was talking to them. I then replied with, "I wasn't meant to teach agricultural education because I am gay and I was told that gay men can't teach students about agriculture." Our conversation continued and came to an end in a short period of time. There is one thing I will never forget about this event. Privately, 10 or more preservice teachers approached me about struggles they had in being authentic and living their true selves in their environment. Whether they were gay, a female, male, rural, urban, and so much more. I was shocked, amazed, and humbled to hear their stories. The most humbling was when preservice teachers who were already struggling began to advocate for their friends who were also struggling with something internally. What did I learn out of this experience? We have so many people in our lives everyday who are not living their authentic lives because they don't know how. The same thing is said about agricultural education. We need to take time to meet people where they are at and understand their story more. No one wants to talk about their struggles, their problems, the things that haunt them. We as humans are conditioned to do that. However, one of those things that haunt them, could be the one thing that prevents them from performing at their best or even showing care, emotion, and strength. I spent years preventing people from finding out my secret. Hundreds of thousands of wasted hours that could have been devoted to something different.