STEWARTVILLE -- Jim Parry remembers a small bell on his fifth-grade teacher’s desk. Whenever the class started to get out of control teacher Stan Tordsen would give that bell a ring.
That small, simple action is one of the few things Parry remembers with any degree of clarity from that year.
“That bell was the only consistent thing in my life at the time,” Parry said. “And when he rang that bell, it meant you needed to sit down and be quiet and ready to learn in the next 10 seconds.”
Looking back, Parry credits Tordsen as one of the positive influences from his childhood that helped him cope with the traumatic issues he was dealing with at home. There were a number of teachers like that for Parry: there was the PE teacher who fostered his love for running. Then there was his German teacher and his sixth-grade teacher who helped him gain a sense of self worth.
Their influence helped turn Parry into the teacher he is today -- the kind who is helps students make it through their own struggles.
With the work he has done with students in his hometown school, Parry was recently named one of the semi-finalists for the position of 2020 Minnesota Teacher of the Year.
Parry is a REACH teacher for Stewartville Public Schools. REACH stands for Relationships, Education, Accountability, Character and Hard work. It’s a program that strives to help students who are experiencing any of a number of issues, such as academic struggles, poor social skills, adverse childhood experiences, mental health issues, attendance problems, or behavioral concerns.
The blog for Stewartville’s REACH program says its goal is to “educate the ‘whole student.’” It later says that “the personal/emotional needs of our students must be met first so they can find the academic success they’re looking for.”
As part of the program, Parry works with his students on a number of things that might not be found in a normal classroom lesson plan. He emphasizes indicators of either success or failure -- things like attendance, self control, manners, perseverance, honesty and forgiveness.
Even when he’s not in the middle of a lesson, though, his corner of the school never seems to be without students for any long stretch of time.
During a recent school day, Parry sat at his desk while students periodically strolled into his office. He greeted them casually as they’d make their way over to a miniature refrigerator and help themselves to a bottle of water or a granola bar.
Parry knows that if he’s going to have any influence with his students, he first has to build a foundation of trust.
“The success that I’m looking for is long-term changes in behavior,” Parry said. “In earning their trust, I have to be vulnerable as well.”
Being nominated for Teacher of the Year isn’t the first time Parry has been recognized for his work. He’s already been awarded the Human Rights Award from the organization Education Minnesota.
And while Parry may be dealing with a finite set of students in the community of 6,000 just south of Rochester, his reach has gone far beyond the hallways of Stewartville’s combined middle school and high school campus.
It started when local groups wanted to hear about his work with the REACH program. He then had the opportunity to speak at some of Education Minnesota’s events, as well as for the Minnesota Education Association. He’s also had an impact outside of Minnesota, such as when he presented at the National Trauma Informed Schools conference.
Even state lawmakers have heard from Parry.
“For far too many students, adverse childhood experiences are life experiences,” Parry told lawmakers at the Capitol last May. “These life experiences affect everything from mental and physical health to relationships and academics. Our students can’t simply be fixed with a temporary response.”
Regardless of the reach he has had to other educators and students, Parry is at home in Stewartville.
Teaching outside the district, he wanted to return for a long time. He applied for a teaching job in the district a handful of times before he finally received the position.
By that time, his old fifth-grade teacher, Mr. Tordsen, was retiring. Tordsen gave Parry that little bell that sat on the corner of his desk all those years ago.