BELOIT, Ohio — A young blonde woman sits at the teacher’s desk.
The chalkboards behind her are scribbled with phrases like “cowboy logic,” “mind moover” and “key terms in agriculture.”
It’s not often that she sits at the desk — she has been too busy to be sitting.
• • •
Rebecca Zeisler, 23, can think back about the past 12 months and take a breath — now that it’s over.
She graduated from college, got married this past summer, started her first year of teaching and gave birth to a son in March.
Yes, all of that in one year.
Her own mom, Sarah Swope, said she’s not sure she would have survived such a crazy year herself.
“She’s held up much better than I would have,” said Swope.
• • •
Zeisler, a Columbiana County native, went to West Virginia University and majored in ag education. But from the moment she left, she was set on coming home when she was done.
She did her student teaching for three months in Ravenswood, West Virginia, but says now it’s not the same as having your own classroom.
The young teacher found a job at West Branch High School in southern Mahoning County. It was great timing — longtime ag educator Mike Bardo was retiring, and Zeisler would be taking over his position.
But she would be bringing someone back to Ohio with her — Ryan Zeisler.
They had already planned their wedding.
• • •
“I don’t know how she does it,” said Ryan as he talked about how this year has changed both his life and his wife’s.
He admits he doesn’t think he could have survived what she has done this year.
Ryan said Rebecca would come home and talk about her day and the challenges she faced, with the different attitudes and mindsets, and yet she would get up and go back to it the next day.
“To sum it up, it’s been an enlightening experience,” said Zeisler.
But through the chaos, he watched Zeisler become the teacher she always told him she wanted to be.
• • •
Growing up, Zeisler always knew she wanted to do something in agriculture.
She grew up on a 53-acre family farm, Heritage Lane Farm, near Hanoverton, Ohio, raising bison and produce. And she was the one selling the bison meat and the produce grown in the high tunnels and gardens at the farmers markets.
Zeisler spent her childhood going to ag meetings and learning. Her parents often hosted events and she was a part of it.
“I liked telling and teaching people about agriculture. I loved watching their eyes light up when they learned something new,” said Zeisler.
Even in high school, she knew that’s what she wanted to do.
Her mom, a substitute high school teacher, told her to consider another path.
“Are you sure, you want to go into teaching?” her mom asked.
Swope said she knew from her experience that teaching was not an easy road to travel.
But Zeisler was determined. She already imagined what her classroom would be like.
• • •
West Branch High School Principal Brian Coffee describes the past school year in Zeisler’s freshman and sophomore ag classes as a success.
“It’s been a good transition,” said Coffee. “She was invaluable to us as a district.”
West Branch is one of the few high schools left in Mahoning County to offer agriculture as a class.
Actually, there are fewer than 600 ag teachers in Ohio, according to the Ohio Department of Education.
There were 81 teachers who started their careers this year and 102 teachers have between one and five years experience.
There are only 291 ag teachers in Ohio with 10 plus years of experience in the classroom.
Coffee said Zeisler brought new ideas and lessons to the classroom, as well as an emphasis on technology.
• • •
Zeisler was adamant that her classes would involve more than just learning from a book.
At the beginning of the year, for example, she contacted nearby Cope Farm Equipment with an idea. She wanted to ensure the students could drive a tractor.
So with the help of the community, she taught students how to drive a tractor towing a single axle wagon.
Zeisler said it’s not enough for them to have the know-how, she wanted to make sure they knew how to do it safely.
• • •
If the students could do something in the classroom with their hands to coincide with the lessons Zeisler was teaching, she included it.
When the class studied the dairy science processes like pasteurization and homogenization, she had the students make butter in the class.
“I was surprised to find out only one student had ever made homemade butter,” said Zeisler.
She helped students incubate eggs and watch the birds hatch, something many of the students had never seen or done.
Zeisler has even hauled oak logs into the school in an effort to teach the youth how to grow Shiitake mushrooms.
The lessons didn’t end there.
• • •
The classes tapped trees to learn about maple syrup. And Zeisler worked with a home economics class in the middle school to join lessons — her class cooked the maple sap down and the home economics class made pancakes.
By collaborating with the other teacher, each class learned something new.
• • •
Every new teacher has an image in their head of what the first year of teaching will be like.
Zeisler’s mental picture was replaced by the reality that many of the students didn’t have the ag knowledge base she expected.
She said many of them have worked on farms, but they don’t know the basics of animal science or agronomy, for example. This meant teaching the same lessons to students at different levels.
That’s where her knowledge outside of the classroom has really helped. Growing up, her parents were always teaching others about nature and farming in various formal and informal settings, so she learned from them how to help others who may not know the basics. That knowledge allowed her to develop as a teacher.
• • •
At the beginning of the year, Zeisler questioned how the shop part of the class would go.
She was comfortable with plant science and animal science classes. She knew she could handle that.
However, “shop is what makes me nervous.”
After all, she had to be ready to give lessons about welding, plumbing and woodworking.
She said her on-farm experience helped her to feel a small amount of confidence in teaching some lessons. And she also took classes in welding and small engine repair at WVU.
She said she learned to help students with problems she wasn’t familiar with by reading books or looking on the internet for tips.
Now, she can help a student tear apart a carburetor with ease.
And before long, she and the students had gained a respect for each other when it came to engines.
The word spread. Many of the projects lining the ag shop came from teachers or community members who were willing to let the students learn on their equipment.
• • •
Zeisler admits she has struggled with discipline in the classroom. Setting her expectation at one level and getting students to behave at that level are two different things.
She’s not alone.
Bardo, who retired from the position Zeisler now has, said he too struggled with similar challenges, even 40 years ago when he started teaching.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s a class today or one 40 years ago. The one thing that has not changed is kids,” said Bardo. “It’s not much different than it was then. Kids are kids.”
The duo have shared war stories over the past school year, and Bardo has assisted with field trips and has given Zeisler the thumbs up when she needed it.
“She got a good start to her teaching career in a good district,” said Bardo.
He added that community support will help her to encourage the students to reach their goals.
• • •
Something else Zeisler didn’t consider is how different each class would be. The sophomores are more organized and the freshman are chaotic.
It’s not hard to figure out what Zeisler meant — all it takes is one look at the notebook cabinet to see the difference.
The sophomore notebooks are all lined up nice and neat. The freshmen notebooks, well, they are lucky to even be sitting on the shelf.
The freshmen are often more excited about the lessons being taught, but the sophomores are the ones that bring the most out of her as a teacher and ask questions related to the topic at hand.
• • •
Zeisler stands next to a student with her goggles on, as the student cuts through a piece of wood with a saw. She encourages the student to take the cut and moves on to another student and a wood project in the ag lab.
While many may see classroom discipline or fixing engines as the biggest challenges, Zeisler points to something else. She said it was a terrific task trying to detail the lessons plans enough so that she could teach the students what they need to know.
But with her time in the classroom came the biggest surprise for her this year — she couldn’t believe how rewarded she feels as a teacher.
“I was surprised right from the beginning how quickly you get attached to the kids. I wasn’t expecting that,” said Zeisler.
For now, she will enjoy her baby over the summer and work at her parents’ farm.
And wait for the next school year to start.