NORTHWOOD, N.D. — Eighteen-year-old Logan Sherva is undecided about pursuing a career in teaching, but a new course at Northwood Public School this year gave him practical experience and insights he’ll use to eventually make a decision.

Sherva is among eight students enrolled in the “Introduction to Teaching” class offered by Sara Tezel, an English teacher. Her goal was to expose students to a profession in which they may have an interest as a possible career option.

Tezel, who has taught at the Northwood for three years, wanted to give students in grades 10-12 the opportunity to explore the profession by working with teachers in the Northwood school system.

“A lot of times, teachers have these great ideas and they just don’t necessarily have the capital to see them to fruition,” she said.

She applied for and received a $2,000 Voya Unsung Heroes grant from Voya Financial last fall to launch the course. She is one of 50 recipients of the grant, awarded to K-12 educators nationwide to support innovative teaching methods, creative educational projects and teachers’ ability to positively influence the children they teach.

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The challenges posed by the pandemic have required teachers to be particularly innovative, as they find new and creative ways to reach students and keep them engaged, according to Voya Financial.

In her Voya Unsung Heroes grant application, titled “Teaching Future Teachers,” Tezel focused on introducing students to the idea of a career in education by tapping into their personal interests and providing them with a combination of direct instruction and in-classroom personal experience.

In her class, students explored multiple aspects of teaching and gained “real-world” experience. The course was tailored to the interests of each student, and was not a generic one-size-fits-all education class, she said.

Education students from area colleges were invited to speak to her class, as well as teachers, principals and school counselors.

Students were tasked with preparing lesson plans and activities for children in the classrooms to which they were assigned. They took digital field trips, visiting distant classrooms via Zoom. The grant funds were used to buy books and supplies for various projects in the classroom.

“We have a lot of fun,” Tezel said. “(Students) come in with a smile.”

Valuable experience

Sherva, who recently graduated, chose to enroll in the class because “I was kind of on the fence about teaching, but thought it might be an option I could pursue,” he said.

The class was valuable, he said. “I learned that teaching is an option that I would definitely want to consider.”

“I’ve always worked with kids, but never to the level that I did in the class,” said Sherva. “I learned that working with kids is one of my specialties, one of my good qualities, I guess.”

Some grade levels, he discovered, are more appealing than others.

“I learned that I do like upper elementary more than lower elementary — working with the kindergarteners, in the small doses we did it, was a lot of fun, but I kind of realized I don’t think that I could do that over the course of a full day.”

Another eye-opener for Sherva was “just how much work teachers do,” he said. “I always thought they are underappreciated as is, but then taking the class, all of the things that go into even just one lesson plan. ... It’s just really a lot of work for teachers.”

Sherva plans to attend Mayville State University this fall. He chose MSU because of its strong teaching program, he said. Whether or not he decides to pursue a career in teaching, “it was really good to be hands-on.”

Gabby Hermanson, another recent graduate, said she enrolled in Tezel’s class “to see what teaching would be like,” she said. “It confirmed that I want to go into elementary education.”

Reese Mitchell, also a class of '21 graduate, took the class “to see if teaching would be an option for me,” she said. “I don’t want to be a teacher, but I do enjoy spending time with kids in the classroom. I realize there’s a lot that goes into teaching — more than you think.”

Exercise in self-discovery

Tezel, a 2007 Grand Forks Red River High School graduate who holds an undergraduate degree from the University of North Dakota and a master’s degree in education from Valley City State University, said that every year, a few of her students express an interest in teaching.

But given the nationwide shortage of teachers, it seems that “sometime between being in middle school, high school and college, something kind of clicks or doesn’t click for some of those students,” she said.

“My principal and I were talking about, wouldn’t it be cool if we were able to give them that opportunity a little bit sooner, so those students that are interested and will eventually go on to be teachers will get a little bit of a heartier experience than they would in some of their (college) introduction education classes, because a lot of those are just strictly lecture-based.

“Also, kids who didn’t think they wanted to go into education were able to explore it in a little safer environment. Because when you get to college, a lot of times you’re like, ‘All right, I’ve got to get this done in four years’ and you maybe are not willing to try new things.

“When you’re In high school you have got a little bit more freedom in your schedule; you’re not necessarily on this huge deadline. You’ve got holes in your schedule you can fill with things you’re interested in.

“I have a few students in my class who weren’t particularly all gung-ho about education; they were like, ‘You know, I thought it would be something fun to try.’ A lot of times, when you get to college, you don’t see people doing that, because it’s very expensive to have fun trying new classes.”

Tezel speaks from experience. As a college student, she had thought she wanted to be an elementary school teacher until she spent time in the classroom, she said. “I dropped out of the program.”

She learned later that “it wasn’t the field, it was the age,” and completed her education degree, she said, noting that she was suited for high school, not elementary, teaching. “High schoolers are my people.”