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If you want to push one of my hot buttons, just make a spiteful comment about how teachers have it easy because they only work for nine months and get summers off. It will get me going every single time.

Although I’m trained as an educator, my last experience with formal classroom teaching was 24 years ago, when I spent a semester student teaching a multiage first and second grade classroom in central Illinois. Those few months left me with empathy for teachers that will never, ever, leave me.

Here’s what I learned about the life of an elementary teacher.

First, I discovered that teaching is physically tiring. During the school day, the constant instructing, standing, and moving combined with the bombardment of need from 20-some little people is draining. And it doesn’t stop when they leave the classroom. I’ll never forget the late nights reviewing that day’s student work and trying to create engaging, hands-on lessons for the next day. It felt like I never got enough sleep before it was time to gather all my supplies and head back to the classroom.

I found that teaching is also mentally and emotionally exhausting. Every lesson, every interaction with a student is fraught with possibilities and pitfalls. I remember a highly-involved lesson that went so well I felt giddy afterwards. I also vividly recall too-harshly reprimanding a child and watching his face crumple into tears. Whether positive or negative, teachers will tell you that experiences like these are emotionally demanding.

Like the physical toll, I learned the emotional toll doesn’t end when the kids leave. One evening, I enlisted the help of a friend to decipher a sentence scrawled by a first-grade boy. After several minutes of scrutiny, we interpreted these words: “It scares me when my mom and dad yell at each other.” My heart ached for this child, whom I had previously only viewed as a classroom mischief-maker. Ask any teacher and they will tell you similar stories of students whose circumstances kept them awake at night with worry.

As demanding as it was, my student teaching experience still didn’t include many additional stressors that today’s classroom teacher contends with. I didn’t have to administer standardized tests, for example, nor was I required to interact with school administrators or parents.

So. Those summers off after the school year ends? After all the long days, late nights, and weekends of preparation, grading, and worrying, I believe teachers urgently need and richly deserve time to relax and recharge before the next school year begins.

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Teachers on their summer “break,” participating in our 18th annual Summer Ag Institute, a 40-hour NIU graduate course.

As soon as school was out this spring, however, 13 local teachers spent several long days of their “break” time attending our Summer Ag Institute (SAI), exploring ways to inject food, farming, and career information into their classroom teaching. They joined many colleagues who ended their school year only to begin courses or attend conferences to further their professional development.

A week later while I was attending the National Ag in the Classroom conference, the previous week’s SAI participants still weren’t resting. They were working on their course assignments. Every day I received a barrage of emails with lesson plans, journals, and papers attached. In the meantime, most of my fellow conference attendees were—you guessed it—teachers on summer break. What is this “summer break” people speak of? When do these teachers rest?

From what I can tell, the answer is: Teachers do rest and recharge in the summer… but not for the three months non-educators may imagine. Many teachers spend early summer taking professional development classes and workshops, mid-summer squeezing in a family vacation, and the final weeks of break preparing for the new school year. Some also teach summer school or work part-time jobs.

Even addressing health challenges often waits until the school year ends.  A fourth grade teacher friend of mine had knee replacement surgery within days after school let out. She’ll be having the other knee replaced yet this summer, allowing enough healing time so that she can be on her feet to teach again in August. Summer “break?” Yikes.

As is true for most working adults, I don’t get a summer break. But I still don’t begrudge teachers theirs.

And to the 220 area teachers over the past 18 years who have spent the first part of their summer break with me, participating in the Summer Ag Institute, thank you. Thank you for devoting so many hours of your “break” time to continue learning so that you may enhance your teaching.

 


This post also appeared as the “Stray Kernels” column in the July 2016 issue of DeKalb County Farm Bureau’s Connections magazine.

I think my husband heartily regrets the day he surprised me with my first smartphone. Why? I enjoy reading about science, and I quickly discovered that a world of knowledge was Literally. At. My. Fingertips.

There was a day when I would readily lose myself in a book or a magazine article. Not so much anymore. Now I have my phone, or my tablet! I can still shut out the rest of the world within moments by stumbling across an interesting article posted on Facebook by Science News, Biofortified, or dozens of other science or ag organizations.

Science on social media

Links to thought-provoking science and ag-focused articles abound on social media, but the comments can be caustic.

The pitfall of following science news sources online, though, is the comments sections. Back in the day, if you read an article about a new science discovery in a paper magazine, you might discuss what you just read with someone nearby. But that was pretty much it.

 

But now! We have the ability to comment immediately, online, about everything! See a headline that grabs your attention? Click! Read! Comment! Oh wait… I know what I think just by the headline; I don’t need to read the whole story. In fact, I’m going to post a comment expressing what I think [types feverishly…]. There.

Have you ever furtively Googled a texting/commenting abbreviation because you didn’t know what it stood for? Yeah, me too. Last week I looked up this one: tl;dr. If you’re old like me (I’m in my mid-40s, which feels dang old if you spend any time in the social media world), you may not have known that one. I’ll save you looking it up. It means, “too long; didn’t read.” Raise your hand if you’ve ever posted a comment on an article you didn’t read all the way through, or (ahem) didn’t read at all. Go on, raise that hand, no one’s watching you. (Seriously—they’re all looking at their devices.)

I’ve actually caught myself gauging whether or not I want to take the time to read an article by perusing the comments first. I’m not sure this is a healthy habit, and I have yet to discern what it is about the comments that help me make up my mind. Whatever it is, reading online comments is an interesting and often depressing foray into human nature.

Judging by what I read in online comments, a whole bunch of people’s moms must have told them as children, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all. Unless you’re online, then you may type whatever the #%&! you want.” The mean stuff bothers me, of course. I remind myself that there just SEEMS to be a lot of hateful trolls, but (hopefully) they are a small minority of folks who make a lot of racket.

The commenters who irritate me most, however, aren’t the trolls who simply thrive on poking people to get emotional reactions. No, it’s the people who casually make snide comments who really disappoint me.

Want to fall into a comment abyss? Read the comments regarding a topic like pesticides or GMOs. Along with outright hateful statements, you’ll run into stuff like this: “Know anything about how toxicology works?” And, “Science, much?” I think the reason these more subtle jabs irk me so much is that they often come from people who otherwise share valuable, credible information. Then they ruin it by being snide. It’s as though they care more about being right than about advancing the conversation.

Here’s something to keep in mind if you’re commenting online. The people “listening” aren’t just the ones commenting. A whole bunch of folks like me are reading quietly, taking in information, and deciding for themselves who and what to believe. And they won’t say (type) a word.

Relationship researcher John Gottman found that contempt is a key predictor of whether or not a marriage will last. I believe this is also true of the often invisible interactions that take place online. It doesn’t matter how much valuable information you can share; if you present it with even the tiniest bit of scorn, readers will “divorce” you and stop listening.

If you really want to maintain a happy “marriage” between your ideas and the people you hope to share them with, online or IRL (in real life), restrain yourself from being sarcastic. Truly. Just be nice. I’m listening.


This post also appeared as the “Stray Kernels” column in the April/May 2016 issue of DeKalb County Farm Bureau’s Connections magazine.

Years after my grandparents got out of the egg business, the area just inside the back door of their farmhouse still smelled faintly of chickens.

That’s where they hung their “chicken clothes”—the overalls, coats, and hats they would wear when doing chores like collecting, cleaning, grading, and packing eggs.

It wasn’t an offensive odor, unlike the chicken houses themselves which smelled strongly enough to make my eyes water on the rare occasion I stepped into them. No, the smell of that small passageway was always a welcoming reminder that I had arrived at Grandma and Grandpa’s. Throughout my childhood, their farm was place I loved to be. I played outside. I sang along to Grandma’s records. I followed Grandpa around. And I learned a whole lot about eggs.

In the summers, I often stayed the night. Many a morning would find Grandpa and me in the kitchen, he standing at the stove making breakfast, me at my usual spot at the table as sunlight streamed through the screen door. Naturally, breakfast was usually eggs. Grandpa liked to experiment with spices, and would often make each of us a uniquely-seasoned one-egg omelet.

While we ate, we would talk. It was over those breakfasts when I learned that very young hens were most likely to lay odd-sized eggs or eggs with a membrane but no shell. Grandpa taught me how to divide a Julian date by 30 to figure out approximately when a carton of eggs was packed. If he happened to have recently collected particularly tiny egg, known as a “peewee,” it was at breakfast time when he or Grandma would wrap it in a paper towel and place it in an empty margarine container for me to take home.

 

After breakfast it would be time to head out to work. To me, the most interesting activity took place in the small egg packing room located on one end of one of the long, low chicken houses. Here, Grandpa dunked wire baskets of eggs into cleaning solution, Grandma perched on a metal stool candling eggs, and an automatic egg grader clattered rhythmically as it sorted eggs by weight. In my mind’s eye, I can still see Grandma carefully rotating eggs in front of the bright bulb on the end of the grading machine, looking for cracks in each shell or blood spots on each yolk.

 

Grandma and Grandpa’s egg delivery route included restaurants, bakeries, and other businesses, mostly in the Rochelle area but also in Rockford. One of my favorite childhood memories is of the day their blue “egg van” pulled up to the rear entrance of Kings School while I was outside at recess. I streaked across the playground in excitement to see them, bursting with pride. MY grandparents provided all the eggs we ate at MY school!

A year or so before he died, Grandpa told me about Pearl Valley Eggs, a modern Illinois egg farm he had recently visited. He was very impressed by it, and said he would like to take me there sometime for a tour. By then, I was working here at Farm Bureau and intrigued by any new farm experiences I could take in. But it wasn’t until some years after he passed that I finally got a chance to visit that farm.

In 2009 and again in 2012 I took groups of teachers to Pearl Valley Eggs during our Summer Ag Institute. Each time, I could imagine Grandpa being there with me, taking in the sheer size of the hen houses, the freshness of the air within them, and the clean, healthy birds in their cages. I could picture him shaking his head in bemused amazement at how many tasks are now automated, including collecting, cleaning, and candling the eggs. I could especially envision him marveling at the robotic egg packing process.

I’ve been told that Grandpa was known by many as “the Egg Man.” I wish he was still here, so we could talk some more about eggs.

Note: Julian date = day of the year. A Julian date of 094 on an egg carton means the eggs were packed on the 94th day of the year, or around April 4, because 94 ÷ 30 = 3 months plus 4 days (where an average month is 30 days long).

 


This post also appeared as the “Stray Kernels” column in the March 2016 issue of DeKalb County Farm Bureau’s Connections magazine.

Absurd worries

Do you ever worry about something—either to yourself, out loud, or maybe on social media–and suddenly realize it’s kind of absurd? I do. I just did it this morning, in fact.

I was bent over zipping up a pair of dressy black ankle boots when this thought flitted through my mind: “I think square toes have gone out of style. I should probably get a new pair.” As I straightened up, my next thought was, “Really? These keep my feet warm and dry, and they’re reasonably comfortable. I can’t believe I just thought about getting a new pair.”

As I continued to get ready for work, I thought of bombed-out cities in the Middle East, starving families in North Korea who have no electricity, and children in Flint, Michigan drinking lead-laced water.

I thought of refugees across the globe who are hungry, cold, miserable, homeless, penniless, and mourning the violent deaths of loved ones.

And my boots are out of style? Does this really matter?

So I started thinking about other absurd things we worry about in our developed world. Does this vehicle have voice-activated GPS? Does that house have granite countertops? Did this bottled water come from a tap, or a mountain spring?

Perhaps nowhere is the absurdity more evident—and more rampant—than in the grocery store. Were the hens who laid these eggs fed a vegetarian diet? Does that soft drink contain high fructose corn syrup? Is this salt non-GMO?

When they first arrive, many immigrants to our country are flabbergasted by the sheer amount and variety of food heaped on our grocery store shelves. Instead of finding it amazing, however, those of us who’ve lived here all our lives analyze labels and fret over the relative merits of things like natural, organic, conventional, and local.

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Food companies amplify our worries using savvy marketing. Whether we realize it or not, worry guides many of our purchasing decisions.

Companies are quick to amplify our worries using savvy marketing. Whether we realize it or not, worry guides many of our purchasing decisions. If we’re worried about the environment, we’ll buy all-natural, biodegradable shampoo. If we’re worried about our health, we’ll buy foods with health claims on the label. If we’re concerned about animal welfare, we’ll buy products labeled with statements about animal care. (Never mind that many such claims are misleading, made-up, and/or downright false.)

 

I’m not saying we’re bad people for worrying about style, food safety, or animal welfare. What I am saying is that many of our worries are overblown. It’s far too easy to forget how fortunate we are, and it’s our good fortune that allows us the luxury to worry.

I had to laugh at myself for thinking I needed new boots. I may still buy them. But I’ve made a pact with myself: When I catch myself worrying about things like out-of-style boots or free-range eggs, I’m going to remind myself that my feet are warm and my tummy is full.

Oh, and speaking of absurd, I must mention:

  • Chickens are by nature omnivores, not vegetarians.
  • High fructose corn syrup is remarkably similar to table sugar.
  • Salt isn’t an organism, and therefore has no genes to modify.

It’s natural to worry. But I’m going to try and keep my fretting in sharp perspective, and recognize when my worries are absurd.

 


This post also appeared as the “Stray Kernels” column in the February 2016 issue of DeKalb County Farm Bureau’s Connections magazine.

It’s not easy, actually.

Asking others for help has never been my strong point. I’m a fiercely independent introvert, and I tend to want to figure things out on my own while talking to as few people as possible.

It’s not that I don’t like people, or don’t like talking. If you halfway know me and ever happen to drift by my office, I might talk your ear off.  I’ll probably say ten awkward things before I finally remember that you have other things to do. Then you’ll leave, and I will take a deep breath and let my scattered thoughts settle for a few moments before I continue working. I’ll be delighted to have talked to you, but I’ll still have to regroup afterwards.

I like people, and I like talking, but it wears me out. Susan Cain, author of the (terrific) book “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking” explains that extroverts are energized by stimulation and social interaction, while introverts are energized by quiet reflection. I am at my most productive and creative in a quiet space.

But it’s January, and it won’t be quiet long. January in my world means gearing up for our Ag in the Classroom program. Gearing up for Ag in the Classroom means fielding requests for presentations from 140-150 teachers. It means obtaining, organizing, and preparing supplies (like corn and soybean seeds for first graders to plant and rock salt so second graders can make ice cream).  Most of all, January means I will be busy asking at least 100 people for help.

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Preparing Ag in the Classroom supplies means asking the Ag Literacy Committee for help!

That’s how many people it takes to visit all those first through fourth grade classrooms to teach kids in our county about agriculture. And you know what? It’s AWESOME. I love it. I love the energy, enthusiasm, and generosity of our volunteers. I love hearing from teachers and sometimes even parents what a profound impact those volunteers have on their students.

But it’s not easy. Introversion aside, I am acutely aware of the fact that each prospective volunteer, upon receiving an e-mail or a call from me, may think something like, “Oh, shoot. She found me.” As you read or listen to my plea for help, all the things that are on the plate you call life will flash before your eyes: Getting your farm tax documents in order. Attending your kid’s dance rehearsals. Delivering seed. Your mother-in-law’s illness. Your other kid’s sporting events. Your job. Your… whatever. I get it—you’re busy.

And here I am, asking you to volunteer. To walk into classrooms and talk to kids about agriculture. You know it will take more time than just the hour or so spent in each classroom. First, there’s the training (if you haven’t presented in the past). Then, reviewing the lesson plan, preparing the materials, and contacting the teachers. And then returning your supplies to my office afterwards. I’m asking you to devote a lot of precious time, in a life that’s already full. I know this.

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I know that volunteering for Ag in the Classroom means trading productive time in your farm shop or bank office for time spent in a few rambunctious classrooms.

Plus, the thing about volunteering is that you don’t have to do it. You don’t have to add another thing to your list of things to do. I know this, too.

This knowledge is ever-present as I carefully phrase each e-mail or mentally rehearse each call before I pick up the phone. So if you get that e-mail or call from me, please know that it wasn’t an easy thing for me to do.

But I also know that what you will do if you say yes is harder yet… and even more important.

P.S. If you have a passion for agriculture and would like to volunteer, you don’t have to wait for me to contact you. E-mail me anytime at rcollins@dekalbfarmbureau.org or call 815-756-6361. I would love to talk to you!

 


 

This post also appeared as the “Stray Kernels” column in the January 2016 issue of DeKalb County Farm Bureau’s Connections magazine.

“Okay, sweetie. Grab ahold of the handle and we’ll go.” I hadn’t seen the routine before, but it was obvious the participants had it down pat. The “sweetie” was my almost-3 year-old daughter. The “handle” was the hammer loop on my husband Mark’s jeans. Naya navigated readily to my husband’s side, grabbed the sturdy loop sewn to his left pants leg, and off they went through the store aisles.

hammer loop croppedAs I strolled along with them, I marveled at the simple ingenuity of their system and how well it suited both of their needs. Naya had a way to stay connected with her daddy, her security. Mark had a way of knowing—without even looking—if our daughter was still close by. Whenever they stopped to examine an item, she could let go if she wanted. But when it was time to move on, they reconnected so they wouldn’t lose each other.

From my vantage point behind them, I snapped a quick photo of the intrepid pair, these two loves of my life. Since then, I’ve found myself drawn to the image over and over again. It’s cute, and resourceful, and sweet. But as I’ve looked at it longer, I’ve found deeper symbolism, too.

We all need something or someone to hang on to. Our loved ones. Our friends. Our faith. Our knowledge, and our beliefs. We have a very human need for a sense of security: emotionally as well as physically. We need to know someone cares, and we need to know certain things matter. For a toddler, his or her parents are that security. Naya needs to know that when she is with us, she can trust us to guard her spirit and her safety.

We don’t just need something to hang on to, though. I believe our lives are meaningful when we know someone is depending on us, too. I’m not just speaking of the kind of dependence children have on their parents. No, we need to know that what we do as we move through life matters to someone beyond us. We need to feel our work—whether it is paid or unpaid—matters. We need to know someone cares that we are here, cares about what we do, and is thankful and appreciative that we do it.

My husband’s hammer loop is a symbol of this vital two-way connection. In the enormous, bustling department store of life, my daughter has a strong, reliable handle to hang on to. While she’s hanging on, Mark can feel the steady tug that reminds him someone is depending on him. It’s okay if Naya lets go now and then, but she needs to know the handle is always there. Likewise, Mark thrives on the certainty that she needs him.

Who or what is your hammer loop? And who is hanging onto yours?

 


 

This post also appeared as the “Stray Kernels” column in the December 2015 issue of DeKalb County Farm Bureau’s Connections magazine.

It was a large rock, and it rested in the point of grass where our driveway reconnected with itself after making a loop in front of the garage and barn. When my mother first discovered it on a farmstead across the road, it took my great uncle using a bucket tractor to deposit it in our yard.

I was drawn to that boulder like any young child with an active imagination would be. It was big enough to sit on with my legs outstretched. Big enough to become a fort to hide behind. Big enough to anchor hours of resourceful playtime involving Breyer model horses or bows and arrows made of willow branches and string.

Of all my memories of the driveway rock, the one that stands out most is of how it served as my grandstand seat for autumn’s glorious spectacle: corn harvest.

Once a year, on a sunny fall afternoon after school, my time would come: the farmer who owned the field across the road would come with his combine to pick the corn. I’m sure he grew soybeans some of those years, but in my memory it was always corn harvest that I watched.

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The greatest thrill for me was when the combine reached the end of the field, right at the end of our driveway. I would gaze expectantly, watching and waiting for that moment when the points of the corn head, then the whole machine, would emerge from the end of the rows. The shining behemoth would swing around, cobs spitting from its hindquarters, straightening itself for re-entrance into the golden rows. I would continue to stare at its receding hulk as it shrank into the distance across the field.

Eventually, as the combine’s roar faded to a distant hum, I would occupy myself on and around the rock. Although the evening air might be cool, my sunbaked rock would still be warm to the touch. It became a game to see how long I could play behind my granite fortress and still emerge in time to watch the combine return for another round.

Watching harvest was irresistible to me then, and it still is now. There’s a grandness, a kind of glory to harvest that just grabs me. Part of it is the weather: the shining intensity of late September and early October skies that are bluer than they ever appear at other times of the year. Part of it is the colors: red and gold leaves, expanses of glowing fields. Yet another facet of harvest splendor is the machines: huge combines, tractors, and grain carts gleaming even through a layer of dust. The reds, greens, and blues of the machines reflect the intense sunlight and stand out in sharp contrast to the fields and sky.

Even the sounds of harvest have grandiosity: the combines, tractors, and semis all emit a powerful roar. As I putter around the house on a Sunday afternoon, I am often conscious of a working combine even a half-mile away. After night falls on a quiet fall evening, the hum of grain dryers radiates across the landscape.

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As a kid watching harvest from my rocky perch, it never occurred to me that I might one day ride in a combine. Thanks to the patience and generosity of several area farmers, I’ve had that experience a number of times since coming to work in agriculture. While I always thought harvest was grand from a distance, it’s AWESOME from the cab of a combine. All of the sights, sounds, and aromas of harvest come together in that small, high space. Added to this swirl of sensations is the view of golden ears being swallowed up by the spinning auger below, the rush of grain flowing into the hopper behind me, and the flicker of constantly changing numbers on the yield monitor.

Even as a non-farmer, I realize that the grandeur of harvest goes well beyond sights, sounds, and smells. It’s the sense of satiety, of satisfaction. It’s the culmination of another year’s work and worry. As the hoppers, carts, trailers, and bins fill, so too do our hearts. And, indirectly, our bellies.

Harvest is over. It’s time to give thanks.

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Photo credit: Cherie Sanderson

 

This post appeared as the “Stray Kernels” column in the November 2015 issue of DeKalb County Farm Bureau’s Connections magazine.