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FFA advisor Zelle: Teaching is about motivating students

NASHUA, Iowa - While a lot has changed, much remains the same for Ron Zelle, an agriculture education teacher and FFA advisor at Nashua-Plainfield High School for 27 years.

FFA advisor Zelle: Teaching is about motivating students
Nashua Plainfield FFA members Allen Lantow, Caleb Smith and Kelly Bierschenk are pictured with their instructor Ron Zelle. Zelle has taught agriculture education and has been an FFA advisor for 27 years.

NASHUA, Iowa - While a lot has changed, much remains the same for Ron Zelle, an agriculture education teacher and FFA advisor at Nashua-Plainfield High School for 27 years.

Zelle's mornings start in Plainfield where he teaches 7th and 8th graders computer technology. He then drives to Nashua where he teaches four high school agriculture classes, as well applied physics and a college level animal science class offered through Hawkeye Community College. Leadership development, record keeping, carpentry and farm business management are all topics in his courses.

He's often practicing with Career Development Event teams before and after school. He might spend a Saturday helping a student complete an FFA degree or proficiency award application.

"Agriculture is changing, and it will continue to change, and these kids have to be ready for change," Zelle said. "They need to know about the resources available to them and how to evaluate those resources. They have to learn that they can't trust something just because it's on the Internet."

Technology is one of the biggest changes for Zelle. Students are learning about global positioning satellites and geo-spatial information.

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"But I spend a lot of time encouraging students to learn the basics, too," Zelle said.

Sixty percent of his students have no connection to the farm and fewer students are looking at agriculture as a career.

"That's a little scary because we need people in agriculture, but I see more diverse interests in students," Zelle said. "Some careers today did not exist when I started."

Zelle encourages students to get involved in extracurricular activities.

"I tell students, 'don't sit on the sidelines,' " Zelle said. "Of course, I hope that FFA will be part of their involvement. So many of my students come back after they've graduated and tell me that getting involved made their life special."

Zelle said every teacher sees a lot of untapped potential in students. The challenge is motivating them.

"The biggest thing I've learned since I started teaching is that there are so many different learning styles," Zelle said. "There is not one thing that works for everybody. You have to find what motivates each individual kid. What works for one group may bomb for another."

Over the years, Zelle has had a state FFA officer, national Career Development teams, numerous community service and chapter awards.

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Last fall, Zelle and his wife, Mary Beth, received honorary American FFA Degrees. Their children, Ben and Deborah, received their American Degrees at the same time.

"That was very special," Zelle said.

Ben is a state officer this year, which has been exciting for both father and son.

Zelle misses the fact that he didn't teach his own children. They attended school in Waverly and belong to the FFA chapter there.

"But they probably had opportunities because I wasn't their ag teacher," Zelle said. "I always say they had three ag teachers, both their parents because Mary is also a certified ag teacher, plus their actual ag teacher."

Once Zelle finishes the school day, he returns to his Waverly farm where he and his wife raise crops and livestock.

"Mary farms full-time, and when I get home I do a lot of the field work," Zelle said. "She is more involved with the livestock, but we work together on a lot of things. I tell people when I retire I look forward to farming in the daylight."

Zelle said that because he farms, he "practices what he teaches."

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