Lessons that Stuck

We each have those people who have had some significant, positive influence upon our lives. Six and a half years ago I was blessed to be paired with my cooperating teacher and first professional mentor, Mr. Vajnar. The lessons I gleaned under his wings at Hays have stuck with me through my early years of teaching and just plain living.


This year he officially announced his retirement (here’s a link to a nice local newspaper article), but his influence lives on in the students he’s taught, mentored, the children he has raised (and is still raising), and me (along with several other interns) who have been honored to work beside him! This post is dedicated to those simple lessons and his enduring legacy in my life and others Mr. Vajnar has impacted!

Lesson #1 – Work Hard, Play Even Harder: 

I’ll never forget my first couple of days at Hays in the Ag classroom. Mr. Vajnar is intense…okay maybe that is understatement…let’s just say we were a good pair. Yet, his intensity had me question, am I in the right place, maybe I don’t belong in this profession or I’m not cut out for this. The first weekend he had me come out for a Sunday family get together and watch Chiefs football, I realized the secret to his constant fire…he let himself recharge at home. At times it was a struggle to determine who was having more fun his little daughter or him? I loved that he welcomed me into this part of their lives and to witness that first and foremost, Mr. Vajnar was a funny, ridiculous Dad, who could separate himself from work.

I’ve been slow to live this lesson out, but as I’ve progressed in my career the value of this lesson becomes more and more profound. I needed to see an Ag teacher who could balance having a large family and yet still be in the profession for the long-haul with the same passion and fire!

Lesson #2 – Get Cruising:

Best classroom management strategy I got from Mr. Vajnar! Keep moving and check-in with students as the lesson progresses. Never stay stuck in the same place for long and during lectures, work the room! He hounded me till it became an ingrained habit. In my own classroom, my cruising allows me to make connections with students daily as I perform informal checks on project progress or looking over a Supervised Agricultural Experience Reflection Journal.

Lesson #3 – You’ll Keep Learning…soon it will be exponential:

I remember one of the days observing Mr. Vajnar teach a lesson on beef cattle. I was awed at how much information he could share on each breed and that he had stories for each one! He made the content relevant, engaging for students, and hilarious. Afterwards, I was down on myself, and Mr. Vajnar could tell, “Something’s bothering you Mr. Meals, spill it.” He is always good about cutting out the fluff and getting to the core of any issue or problem…even when I wish he wasn’t so good at it!

I shared my doubts about myself, my lack of depth in various content knowledge, my lack of relevant experiences that could breath life into the content for the students, on and on I went, but Mr. Vajnar sat and listened…when I was done beating myself up. Mr. Vajnar looked at me and asked, “Did you think I was like this right out of the gate? You are seeing the results from years of experience.” He then drew an exponential growth chart on the back of my lesson plan, “You see this represents my growth in knowledge about agriculture as I’ve been a teacher. You’re just starting…stick with it for at least six to ten years and then you’ll be on this heavy curve upwards, it’ll come, you just got to give yourself time.”

I laugh because on my desk I kept a framed note he wrote me before I left: “Don’t bet against hard work and experience!!!” – Curt Vajnar (The back story of this note is hilarious, but that’s a story for another time!) Yet, there is deeper truth to his quote than I gave recognition too. I’ve been at teaching agricultural education for six years, in that time my experience has taught me a lot about working with our youth, best approaches to teaching specific content, its given me plenty of stories to share, and above all it’s inspired me to keep at it! I thank Mr. Vajnar for giving it to me straight and being honest about his growth as an educator.

Lesson #4 – Have a Side Hustle (or two)

I laughed when Mr. Vajnar would joke about his side hustle at K Lawn. He’d always say, “I work at K Lawn so I can continue my hobby of teaching!” At the time I didn’t recognize or appreciate the wisdom of having something else…I thought there is no way I can hold down something else besides teaching. As I’ve progressed through my career this truth of having your side hustle as a teacher is critical to reducing burn-out…in the respect that you’ve got to have something beyond teaching to find your identity in.

I’ve really discovered, almost by accident, two side hustles; first is my writing/blogging since December 2017 – it offers an outlet of personal reflection, but honestly I just love writing and sharing insights I continue to glean from the various aspects of my life! My second side hustle is simply for fun, working at Bricks as a bartender – I do it because I love people, hearing their stories, and serving them. I’ve had opportunities to share about the Lord in that capacity as I’ve been led and it’s great to have a job that you can simply go and enjoy and not find stressful!

Lesson #5 – “Don’t be a Beach Walker!”

Student behavior management was an issue when I started out in the classroom with Mr. Vajnar. He ran a tight ship and I had difficulties duplicating his system, we had lots of conversations about the topic and how to approach it. One day after a debriefing Mr. Vajnar was like, “Mr. Meals you are a beach walker.” Of course, I had no idea what he was talking about, he could tell I was confused as he went on, “You draw your expectations for your students like a line in the sand and like the incoming tide it erodes away once its tested. Be sure to have respect for yourself and respect for your students, they need and crave accountability, you won’t make it if you don’t. So stop being a beach walker and hold your students accountable for their efforts and actions!”

Throughout the semester that became a running joke between us, but I’ve often returned to that advice in my own classroom. Though we still have two very different styles in approaching student behavior management, the value of holding ourselves personally accountable in upholding high standards for ALL our students is critical. Is it hard sometimes…you bet, but I’ve learned early communication of those expectations with the students and parents coupled with ensuring early followthrough has saved headaches and heartaches in the long-run.

There are countless other lessons that I had gleaned from Mr. Vajnar in my semester of time with him. Yet, as I’ve reflected these five have really stuck, even though at the time I may not have realized how much of an impression they had and would have on my teaching/living. THANK YOU Mr. Vajnar for the countless years of effort/energy you have poured into this profession, your students, and mentees; (while still miraculously having time to raise and love a tremendous family!) Cheers in your retirement and hope you got back that other Insect book! 😉

My challenge for those of you teaching today, find the opportunity to capture and share the learning you had from your cooperating teachers. I recognize that not all placements are “perfect matches”, but I was blessed and thankful that K-State did me right!

As always, thanks for growing and learning along with me; we need each other and we each need phenomenal mentors in our lives. If you don’t have a mentor seek one out…if you don’t have someone you are mentoring seek one out. We need to be poured into and we need to be pouring out, continuously. Take care, stay healthy, keep learning, and always be a source of love for others! Till next time, God bless!

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