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From Dassel-Cokato graduate to ‘Teacher of the Year’

December 1, 2008

Jason Olson, 1998 graduate and social studies teacher, credits DC role models

By Kristen Miller
Staff Writer

DASSEL-COKATO, MN - When Jason Olson was a senior at Dassel-Cokato High School, he never thought he would go to school to become a teacher. Instead, Olson was hoping to make a lot of money as a lawyer.

Then, the 1998 graduate was asked by his “home economics” teacher, the late Gail Schwandt, to work with a gifted and talented first grade student on advanced materials.

“Sure, I’ll do that,” Olson told Schwandt.

Little did he know, this would lead him toward a career in teaching.

Each day, Olson would go and work with the student. He began to see just how much that student appreciated him.

“It was her (Schwandt) giving me that experience,” Olson said, that made him want to become a teacher.

Now, after seven years teaching 11th and 12th grade social studies and coaching speech and one-act plays at Adrian High School in southwest Minnesota, Olson has been nominated by his colleagues for “Teacher of the Year.”

After graduating from Southwest State University in Marshall, Olson accepted his first teaching position at Adrian High School in the fall of 2002.

Olson’s first year teaching was a bit of a struggle for him, as it can be for many teachers straight out of college.

“Being a teacher is harder than it looks,” Olson said.

Some of the main difficulties Olson, as well as other first year teachers face, is how to get the students’ respect, and also how to get them to respond and be motivated, Olson explained.

That summer, Olson decided to get more involved with the school and the community. Olson put his high school theatre experience to good use and started a community theatre program.

This was something new to the Adrian community, and some were skeptical of its success.

The first musical production Olson directed was Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Cinderella,” and there were 22 cast members. Six years later, that number has doubled to about 40 cast members.

Also, in a town of 1,200 (about the size of Dassel), there have been more than 1,300 people in the audience, according to Olson.

“That’s pretty good for us,” Olson said of the musicals’ turnouts. Olson has also directed “The Music Man,” “Bye Bye Birdie,” “A Christmas Carol,” “High School Musical,” and “Footloose.”

Olson also directs one-act plays for the high school, which he is currently gearing up for now.

This year’s one-act is “Masterpiece,” written by Nate Metcalf.

He attributes many of the skills he’s learned to DC and to Dave and Linda Metcalf.

While a student at DC, Olson performed in “Moby Dick,” “The Music Man,” “The Secret Garden,” and “Seven Brides for Seven Grooms,” – all under the direction of the Metcalfs.

“A lot of the skills I use in general are what DC taught me. I felt it was a great school and it really did prepare me,” Olson said.

“Jason was really fortunate to have had the teachers and staff who shaped him into the teacher he is today,” said Olson’s mother, Diane.

“His teachers have really been his role models, and he has said that many times,” she added.

Olson’s high school speech coaches, Mike Worcester and Mari Pokornowski, were two of those people who prepared and influenced Olson to become who he is today, including a successful speech coach.

“Mike is still someone I turn to today,” Olson said.

Olson joked that he’s always “kind of had a big mouth” so it was no surprise speech would be fitting for him.

In the first introduction meeting, Worcester convinced Olson to give speech a try. Olson took that advice and chose the speech category, extemporaneous speaking.

This is when a speech participant attends a competition somewhat unprepared.

The student is asked to choose one of three questions to answer regarding current events. At the time, participants were given 45 minutes to prepare an answer, as well as an argument in support of it. They would then give a seven-minute presentation to the judges.

“Jason was one of those students who didn’t know the talent he had, and it just took a little bit of prodding for that to come out,” Worcester said.

The success of Olson’s coaching has given him a nomination by his fellow coaches to sit on the state’s advisory committee for speech.

Worcester explained this is quite the “prestigious” position since there are only two coaches in Class A and two in Class AA who serve on the board.

“Jason’s work in the speech community has definitely earned him that position,” said Worcester, who has previously served on the committee.

Aside from coaching and directing, Olson is also a prom advisor, as well as a fall football cheerleading advisor.

Being so active outside of the classroom, as well as giving quality instruction within it, have been the main criteria for Olson becoming teacher of the year.

Teacher of the Year is a program through Education Minnesota, the teachers’ union; and allows teachers to nominate other teachers who they feel fit the title.

Olson explained a lot of the criteria is based on the teacher (in this case, Olson) showing desire and caring about the students and activities he/she is involved with.

In other word, “doing it for the right reasons, not just to collect a paycheck,” Olson said.

Although Olson feels there are many teachers in his district deserving of this award, he is appreciative that he was chosen.

“Teaching in general is a wonderful profession . . . there is an enormous amount of satisfaction,” Olson said.

“It’s nice to see, ‘yes, I’m making a difference,’” Olson added.

Olson has not yet decided if he will submit a portfolio to compete for Minnesota Teacher of the Year.


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