By Ivan Raconteur
LESTER PRAIRIE, MN Good teachers find ways to make connections with their students, and based upon the comments of his former students, Lester Prairie science teacher John Rosell has found plenty of ways some of them a bit unconventional to do just that.
Rosell has been teaching for 34 years, 29 of which he has spent at Lester Prairie High School teaching chemistry and seventh through ninth grade science.
Early in his career, he also taught in Silver Lake and Cold Spring.
Before retiring last week, he spent some time talking candidly about his teaching philosophy and about his long career.
“When you teach, you have to be an entertainer,” Rosell said. “You have to present the information.”
Walking around his classroom, every object has a story. Many have been used to illustrate the stories he has told and the lessons he has taught through the years.
He reaches into a closet and pulls out a belt that is brittle from age and worn from use. The words “World fishing federation tag team champions” are spelled out “In real imitation gold.”
Students who asked where he defends his title were told “Lake Woebegone.” If students asked where that is, he would say, “Half way between here and there.”
“The second blue moon each month” was the answer if students asked when he defended his title.
When students objected and said this would never happen because there is no such thing, he would nod gravely and concede that this was a technicality.
The championship belts were only part of the silliness that livened up Rosell’s classroom.
From a drawer he pulled a pink plastic telephone which he described as his “hotline to the north pole.”
He explained that he would take this out about two weeks before Christmas each year and call in a report about his students to Santa.
Routines like this got even the shyest students talking, Rosell said.
In describing his teaching style, Rosell explained that he learned years ago while listening to the pastor in church that it is easy to daydream.
“After about 10 minutes, I jump off with a story or a joke, and then I bring them back to the topic. After another 10 minutes, I jump off again,” Rosell said. “You have to get their attention and keep it.”
Because he has taught in Lester Prairie for so long. Rosell has often taught multiple members of the same family.
He explained that he has taught one or both of the parents of 40 percent of his students in grades seven through nine. This can make parent-teacher conferences “interesting,” he added.
Rosell offered some advice for parents.
“As soon as they are old enough to track and follow, read with your kids,” he said. “I don’t think a lot of that is being done today. The more time you spend with your kids during the critical ages two through eight, the less time you will have to spend with them later,” he said.
Rosell acknowledged the importance of parents in the lives of their children.
“You’ve got to be a parent for the full 18 years,” he said. “It is a difficult task, but you have to stay with it.”
His long career at Lester Prairie gave Rosell plenty of historical information. He explained that when he was coaching, if a father was too hard on one of his students, he would take out the books from when the father was on his team, and show the child his father’s statistics and records.
Rosell said he often gets questions from students about what their parents were like when they were students at Lester Prairie.
“I always tell them ‘they were angels compared to you,’” Rosell said.
Sometimes, he shared stories about his own youth with his students.
“They need to know that you grew up too, that you were a kid once,” Rosell commented.
He never married and has no kids of his own, but he feels a bond with his students.
“The kids I had (in class) are my kids. They are my family,” Rosell said.
He added that students never really leave, because many of his former students have kept in touch with him over the years.
These former students tell him how they are doing and how they still remember the things he taught them. In one recent letter, a girl wrote, “Thank you for caring about us kids.”
He said he never had any interest in going into administration. He preferred to stay in the classroom and deal with students directly.
One of the things he will miss the most about teaching is his relationship with his students, and watching them come in as seventh graders and leave as seniors.
Rosell said he never sat at his desk when the bell rang, he stood outside his door and watched the students come and go.
He explained that he could tell just by watching what kind of day the students were having, and often was able to prevent problems before they happened just by being aware of what was going on around him.
“When you have been around as long as I have, you learn to deal with situations that come up, because you have dealt with them all before,” he commented.
“My philosophy about teaching is ‘educate and protect.’ I’m not sure which one of those comes first.”
Rosell said he didn’t often have problems with discipline, but there occasionally were situations that required it.
“You can’t let the prisoners run the hoosegow,” he quipped.
When he did have to discipline students, he said “I inconvenienced them, I didn’t torture them.”
The biggest changes in teaching since Rosell became a teacher include advances in technology and communication. One example is the way that parents can check their children’s grades daily or weekly.
“You still have to know the basics,” he said.
He coached football, boys basketball, and golf for 30 years before losing his voice in 2005 due to a medical condition.
This forced him to adapt and learn new ways of communicating with his students, including a sort of sign language. Now, he is able to speak with the help of a wireless microphone that he wears around his neck, but his coaching days are over.
Rosell joked that he originally became a teacher because he did some research and discovered that the work was seasonal, which left him free to enjoy other activities during the summer months.
He plans to keep busy after he retires.
“After retirement, I’m going to hunt more, fish more, drink the beverages that I have yet to open, and search for the ladies I have not yet met. The rest of the time will be spent foolishly,” he remarked with a straight face, but a twinkle in his eye.
He also said that he hopes to do some substitute teaching after retirement.
“Old coaches never retire, they just take long time outs,” Rosell said.