Rich Lessen isn’t your grandfather’s agriculture teacher.
On second thought, maybe that’s a fitting description. After all, he’s a fellow who likely can be found tending the school crops, or spending time with students at the county fair or statewide FFA conferences.
The 2005 National Rural Teacher of the Year, Mr. Lessen brings his lessons home to students at Delavan High School in Delavan, Ill., by devoting himself to student activities that often launch youngsters into careers way beyond the family farm.
“We’re not training a student to be a farmer. We’re just letting them know a lot of the jobs out there in the rural world come back and relate to farming,” Mr. Lessen said after receiving the award in August.
These days, his work stresses leadership development and taking students to speak at state and regional conferences. He teaches 7th grade science, works with older students in agri-science, and tends the school’s 10-acre farm, where seeds are tested for soybean companies.
Given by the Norman, Okla.-based National Rural Education Association and sponsored by John Deere, the rural teacher-of-the-year award includes a $2,000 prize and a $1,000 grant to the winner’s school.
Now in his 30th year of teaching, Mr. Lessen said he hopes to use the school’s prize money to help build a campus greenhouse that could attract a bright teacher to replace him once he retires.
He speaks of his fellow teachers, including his wife, Karen, who teaches 2nd grade at the 500-student K-12 campus in Delavan, about 50 miles north of Springfield, Ill., as a supportive group.
Known for a daffy sense of humor, Mr. Lessen laughed when he recalled what he was doing when Delavan’s principal, Andrew Brooks, called him in August to tell him of the national award.
“I was working out at the county fair at the hog show,” Mr. Lessen confessed.
Mr. Brooks remembered the call. “I could hear the pigs squealing in the background. Of course, it might have been the kids,” he said.
A version of this article appeared in the November 02, 2005 edition of Education Week