Fisher ag instructor receives MREA 'Educators of Excellence' award

Mike Christopherson
Submitted

    One would be especially challenged to find a teacher with a more wide-ranging courseload than Kristen Schwarz, who carries the title of "ag instructor" at Fisher Public School. She teaches Food Science, along with Veterinary Science. She leads a class teaching students what it takes to earn a CDL (Commercial Driver’s License), a class on managing a greenhouse, a small-engines course, a Family and Consumer Science class, and an ag exploration course. Through a collaboration with Northland Community and Technical College in East Grand Forks, she also offers a course preparing Fisher School students to become Certified Nurses’ Aides. In addition, Schwarz, after beginning years ago as a part-time volunteer, oversees the FFA program at the small school tucked between Crookston and East Grand Forks along U.S. Highway 2.

    There was never an “aha!” moment for Schwarz; she never had an epiphany and knew right then that she wanted to be a teacher. In fact, she’s a nurse, first an LPN, and then she earned her Registered Nursing degree from NCTC in 2006. She worked as an RN and also in the agronomy field for a few years, eventually working her way up the tiered Minnesota RN licensing system to become a Tier 2 teacher.

    Intertwined in everything Schwarz does as an educator are her ongoing efforts to provide hands-on learning opportunities to her students...learning opportunities that also benefit the Fisher community and region.

    "When the (Agricultural Education) program started, I was asked to teach one class in order to see if ag classes would have success in Fisher," Schwarz recalls. "When I went full-time in teaching, I loved that I could share my passion for agriculture and make it fun and hands-on when possible."

    “Mrs. Schwarz is just so fun, she’s really inspiring, and she can do anything you can think of,” said Danika Motl, a freshman at Fisher Public School.

    Schwarz’s efforts caught the eye of the Minnesota Rural Education Association (MREA), which, after receiving her nomination submitted by a colleague, bestowed upon Schwarz one of four 2021 MREA Educators of Excellence Awards. The MREA recognition program spans the entirety of Greater Minnesota, and Schwarz was singled out in the MREA’s North region. She and the other 2021 award recipients were honored at the MREA's 2021 Awards Ceremony and Banquet in November.

    The MREA Educators of Excellence Awards “recognize, reward and promote excellence in education that achieves the highest outcomes for Greater Minnesota students,” the MREA states on its website. The award, the MREA continues, honors inspiring educators who demonstrate:

    *Positive impact on students and student achievement

    *Leadership in the school, district and community

    *Innovative and creative instructional practice that impact all students

    *Collaborative efforts with fellow educators, parents, families and the community

    Schwarz, the MREA says on its Educators of Excellence Awards page, “believes in teaching real-life skills to her students. She meets her students where they are and fosters their individual interests to bring out the greatest potential in each of them."

Hometown girl

    Born and raised in Fisher, Schwarz, daughter of Curt and Kim Knutson, wife to Travis and mom to four kids, saw teaching at the K-12 school in her hometown as sort of a dream job. While she teaches at the high school end of the building, three of her four kids are learning at the other end of the school, in the elementary wing. (Her youngest attends preschool at Fisher School.)

    While her storyline and career path don't come without certain pressures or challenges that often accompany the hometown-kid-comes-home scenario, Schwarz sees it all as one big opportunity to learn and grow as a person and an educator.

    "I knew that the Knutson roots run deep in our small town, with my grandfather and great-grandfather being a part of the school as well in years past. Now, teaching in the same school system I grew up in, I get to not only teach with some of the very individuals that taught me, but I also get to teach my friends or former classmates' children," she explains. "I think with any small town there can be challenges as well. Funding for programs such as ours as well as community support can at times be a huge hurdle when starting a new elective pathway. The scary part is that I grew up with many around here so I can only imagine the stories they could all tell!"

    Schwarz acknowledges that sometimes she's stubborn, and she's guilty of cramming too much on her plate. It's led to her "falling on my face" from time to time, but her ambition as an educator is rooted in her drive to offer Fisher School students interested in ag-related careers as many opportunities to explore and to learn as possible. Whether succeeding or struggling, Schwarz continues to be amazed by her colleagues, her school and her community, as she puts it, "having my back."

    "I have had much support and backing when I needed it," she adds.

    It's support well worth providing, Fisher School District Superintendent Evan Hanson says. "Her students are learning so much more than just the letters and the numbers,” he says. “They’re learning about life.”

'Complete shock'

    Schwarz says she was stunned to learn she was among the 2021 MREA Educators of Excellence honorees.

    "I could not believe that this was where my path led over the last seven years, after a past that included wearing many hats. I was honored but in all honesty I feel very undeserving. I didn't do anything out of the ordinary, I just dared to dream bigger for our kids and reach for it," she says. "To think that our small town has made such an impact in the world of rural teaching is extremely humbling and yet so fulfilling. I can think of so many others that are much more deserving, and I am so grateful to be teaching right alongside some of the greats!"

    Achieving such a prestigious award still relatively early in one's teaching career might result in one feeling increased pressure to top one's self, to set the bar higher amid rising expectations. But Schwarz sees it as simply an opportunity to continue to strive for more in her classroom, her school, her community, and the region.

    "I love to learn new things and go on new adventures and teaching thankfully gives me an opportunity to learn something new every day," Schwarz notes. "I have been able to meet some incredible people who have partnered with us in order to offer so many opportunities for our students and I hope to continue to make this program better."

    For her, it's all about positioning the next generation for their best shot at success, whether they become farmers, truck drivers, greenhouse managers, veterinarians, CNAs, or they follow career paths somewhere else in the ag or healthcare fields.

    Or if they become teachers.

    "I think all teachers' ultimate goal is to work themselves out of a job by training their replacement in one of their students. I hope that down the road, one of my students will come back and step into the position that this program has created and grow it even more," Schwarz explains. "I hope that this program continues to adjust curriculum to meet the current and future needs of agriculture as well. The kiddos in our classrooms now are the leaders of tomorrow, and I hope I played a small part in assisting a few of them to see what their future can unfold to be."

To learn more about Schwarz and her award, and to see a video featuring her and her efforts at Fisher School, visit https://www.mreavoice.org/kristen-schwarz/.

Kristen Schwarz, right, is pictured at the 2021 MREA Awards Ceremony and Banquet with friend and colleague Mikayla Hensrud, an English teacher at Fisher Public School.
Kristen Schwarz, right, is pictured with Fisher School freshman Danika Motl after an FFA competition.
As part of the CDL (Commercial Driver’s License) course Kristen Schwarz teaches, she has partnered with Transystems, which has brought its CDL driving/course simulator to Fisher Public School on multiple days during the 2021-22 school year. Here, Ray Deleon with Transystems, left, monitors the performance of student Jayden Hagl.