Ag Ed teacher, Jerry Janisch, talks about his career, student success
Ag Ed teacher, Jerry Janisch, talks about his career, student success

 

Jerry Janisch recalls more than 20 applicants were in contention for the Milbank High School, South Dakota agricultural education position. Dave Bergan, Milbank High School principal at the time, said he narrowed the applicants down to four candidates to interview – Janisch and his brother, Greg, were two of those candidates.

“When Jerry applied for the job, he did not have a lot of experience and his chapter at Waubay [South Dakota] was not big,” Bergan says. “However, the chapter was outstanding and had a strong reputation. This led us on the hiring committee to feel like this was the guy we wanted to come in and move the Milbank FFA Chapter in the right direction.”

Bergan says he visited Waubay High School because he was on a team of educators for a Waubay School District school improvement project.

“I had the opportunity to go back to his shop and watch him work with the students,” Bergan says. “He had a good way about him, one you would like to have your child experience as a student.”

Later that day, Janisch says he was offered the contract, he had a week to think about it. He says he felt he took the Waubay FFA Chapter as far as he could and wanted a new challenge. He signed the contract on May 15, 1992, and the rest is history, said Janisch, Milbank FFA advisor and agricultural education teacher.

 “Jerry was the one we settled on, and he has done a heck of a job,” Bergan says.

Janisch’s life did not always revolve around the agricultural industry, he said. Instead of taking agricultural education classes and joining FFA in high school like his brothers, he says he took industrial arts. Even more so, he says majoring in agricultural education while at South Dakota University was a fluke.

“I went out to eat with two of my friends while we were in Brookings getting ready for college classes to start,” Janisch says. “After eating they said, ‘Well, we have to go to Clark Hanson’s office and sign some forms as agricultural education majors.’”

Janisch says he decided to tag along. As they were signing their names, Janisch says Hanson, past South Dakota State University agricultural education professor, slipped him a form and says, “You might as well sign one, too.”

 “[Hanson] was my college advisor and mentor throughout my career,” Janisch says. “We still are good friends to this day.”

When he began his career, the program was traditional and had low FFA membership, Janisch says.

Bergan says he was at first worried about the situation of the chapter because of the low membership. However, Janisch always had ideas and was not afraid to get kids involved, Bergan says. The implementation of a greenhouse behind the school is a prime example, he adds.

“Mr. Janisch was not a horticulture person, but he was not afraid to venture out,” Bergan says. “The greenhouse is still probably one of the highest quality greenhouses attached to a school in the state of South Dakota.”

 The greenhouse was built because students in horticulture class believed they needed it, Janisch says. He investigated greenhouses, talked to experts in the field, and developed a plan, he adds.

The greenhouse cost $75,000 and was paid for through the support of the Milbank Community Foundation, Milbank Economic Development and the Milbank School Board.

“The first thing that comes to mind when I think of Mr. Janisch is his work ethic,” says Dan Snaza, Milbank High School principal. “I would say he ranks up with the hardest working teachers in the building. He puts in so many evenings. We do have a lot of staff who do put in extra hours, but it sometimes seems like the guy lives up here.”

Janisch says being an agricultural education teacher is more than being in the classroom from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

“I try and get to school around 7 a.m. because I like to work in the morning,” Janisch says. “I like to keep my door open in case students stop by.”

The teaching portion of his day begins at 8:15 a.m. and involves teaching six different classes. After school gets out at 3:15 p.m., Janisch says he will have meetings with students, grade papers, and prepare for the next day. He says he tries to leave around 5 p.m. On weekends, he says he will come into the classroom to catch up on paperwork and lesson plans.

“It is just a routine I started ever since I began teaching,” Janisch says.

Snaza says teaching six different classes is unique at the school, but Janisch never complains about it. Janisch does everything from classroom teaching to teaching in the shop. He even attends FFA functions around the state to stay informed, Snaza says.

Another way Janisch is a unique teacher is by the number of community members he includes in the FFA program, Snaza says.

“He is not afraid to admit that he does not know a lot about one area,” Bergan says. “He will go find someone in the community who is knowledgeable on the topic. It is something a lot of people do not do.”

When students belong and are involved in an organization, such as FFA, the school functions better, Snaza adds.

“The students are not just coming to school because they have to,” Snaza says. “They are coming because they are a part of an activity and it gives them more motivation. His FFA chapter has motivated a lot of students to come to school and continue to further their education in the agricultural industry.”

In December 2002, Janisch faced a situation, which many teachers may never face in their careers. Justin Maass, a member of the Milbank FFA Chapter, died while the chapter was in Pierre, South Dakota, competing at the State FFA Leadership Development Contest.

“I was downstairs at the Governor’s Inn having coffee when my chapter president at the time, Jenna Mueller, came rushing down to tell me Justin had collapsed,” Janisch said.

Later that day, Janisch says he informed the parents and the school Maass died because of a heart condition.

“That was the longest day of my career,” Janisch says. “It still bothers me, but I know there is nothing I could have done differently.”

Maass was an avid Milbank FFA member, Janisch says. He competed in contests in both the spring and fall semesters. He was also a member of the dairy foods judging team. His team won the state championship after Maass’ passing, which gave the team the opportunity to compete at the National FFA Convention.

“When the team won the state championship, they dedicated the next six months to winning the national contest,” Janisch says. “We became the first chapter in South Dakota history to win the dairy foods judging career development event at the national level.”

When the community is faced with a tragedy, Snaza says, one can rely on Janisch to step up and provide support for those hurting.

When Ty Schaffer, a third-grader at Koch Elementary School, was diagnosed with leukemia in 2018, Janisch received a text message from Kellie Christians, an FFA chapter officer. She asked him if the FFA chapter could host a fundraiser for Schaffer, he says.

The next day, Janisch says he received a similar text message from Claire Mischel, another FFA chapter officer. He sat them down later that day to help them create a plan, he says.

“I split the officers into two teams, Team Kellie and Team Claire,” Janisch said. “I gave them two weeks to raise $1,000. If they raised $1,000, I would take the officer team to Shady Beach Grille for supper. For the life of me, I only thought they were going to raise a couple hundred dollars.”

Janisch knows how to work with students, Snaza says, which is one of the reasons he is so successful in anything he does.

“He knows as adults if we tell the students what to do, we will never get them to participate,” Snaza says. “If the idea comes from the students, they have more ownership in it and that is what happened with the Ty Schaeffer fundraiser.”

By the end of the two weeks, the officer team had raised $3,114.

“I learned from Mr. Bergan to set high goals and push your students toward them,” Janisch says. “Just keep pushing them. You have to believe in the students or you will never accomplish anything.”

This year, the Milbank FFA Chapter is celebrating its 75th anniversary. Janisch is the fifth teacher to teach at the school since chartered in 1943.

“Some schools are not as lucky and have gone through a new teacher each year the past four years,” Janisch says. “I could have retired three years ago, but I think, ‘what would I do with myself?’”

Janisch has traveled with more than 30 teams to compete at the National FFA Convention during his career and has achieved two national championships, numerous runners-up, and multiple American degree recipients.

“Mr. Janisch is leading one of, if not the top, program in the state in terms of accomplishments,” Bergan says.

Janisch says he believes students from Milbank, South Dakota, can compete with anyone in the nation as long as they have the right support and preparation.

The program has gone through many changes in the past 75 years, Janisch says. For a chapter to be this old and successful in competitions and in the classroom is unique, he added.

“I have learned throughout the years to just try and be a duck,” Janisch says. “Be calm and collective on the outside, but paddle like heck underneath the surface.”