In a back corner of Larry Reyburn’s science classroom, at the back end of Cedar Springs High School, 39 trout swim in a tank. There they will grow throughout the school year, fed by students who will measure their weight gain, maintain the water’s pH level and eat them at the spring FFA banquet.
The trout have plenty of nature’s company in the room. Hydroponic plants crawl across the walls and up a tree made of plastic pipe, across from a busy FFA bulletin board that proclaims “Trees are the answer.” But let’s get out of the classroom and go to the trees outside, where Reyburn’s real subject matter lives.
“These needles, they’re not pokey, they’re very, very soft,” Reyburn tells his class under a stand of white pine. “They’re five in a bundle.”
Being able to identify a dozen trees might help one of these students in a forest management job, Reyburn says, as might the trout tank in a fisheries career. But in his 40 years of teaching science and leading FFA at Cedar Springs, Reyburn has sought to impart deeper lessons to his students.
“We want to have them grow and develop,” he says with quiet passion after class. “To learn to love life and people, and to get that great feeling when you’re good at doing something.”
He learned those lessons himself, growing up on a small dairy farm outside of town. He’s passed them along faithfully as generations of students have passed through his classroom.
“Your grandpa, is he still alive?” he asks one student as they return from the tree outing. “I went to school with him.”
‘He’s probably one of the biggest role models in my life.’ – FFA President David Schoenborn
‘They’re Just Neat Kids’
At 64, Reyburn could retire from teaching if he wanted to. He doesn’t want to.
“I don’t know if they have to pay me,” he says with a smile, when asked what teaching means to him. The way he chokes up before answering makes you believe him.
Teaching is all he has wanted to do since he was in FFA as a student at Cedar Springs, from which he graduated in 1969. He took a degree in agriculture and natural resources education from Michigan State University before beginning his career in 1975.
It’s not hard to see why he arrives each day around 6 a.m. to teach about 150 students in biology, animal science, and agriscience and natural resources. From his happily cluttered classroom to his idea-popping conversation, it all speaks of loving students.
“You get close to kids,” says Reyburn, who has nine of his own. “You get to know ‘em, and hopefully pour into their lives.”
Those 150 students? “Every one of them is neat,” he says. “They’re just neat kids.”
One of them is David Schoenborn, the FFA president. His family owns a small “hobby farm” and he works at a dairy farm in Sparta and on his grandfather’s bee farm. David says his teacher has helped him in everything from how to talk in front of people to understanding crops and coping with his parents’ divorce.
“He’s the best teacher I’ve ever had in high school, that’s for sure,” David says. “He’s probably one of the biggest role models in my life.”
From Reyburn he’s learned the value of hard work and career guidance. David hopes to study agribusiness management at Michigan State University and would like to be a crop consultant.
“He’s definitely inspired me to go into that career path,” David adds. “He’s very wise.”
Agriculture Growing More Specialized
That David has found his path in agriculture pleases Reyburn. In a farm economy increasingly dominated by huge companies, it’s the niche agricultural businesses and specialized jobs that hold most promise for his students: things like soil science, agricultural economics and organic farms.
“We’re trying to beat the old ‘sow, cow and plow’ vision of agriculture and open them up to new careers,” Reyburn says, noting that only about three students in the whole school live on full-time farms.
FFA is an entry point for many. A banner in his class proclaims its aims of leadership, personal growth and career success. He saw those traits at work last spring, when some of his students earned a silver medal at a state competition for a demonstration on how to use chainsaws safely.
‘You need to know all those other things, about what life is.’ – Larry Reyburn
The chapter’s agricultural mechanics team also restored a couple of garden tractors and are rebuilding the diesel engine of a 1937 tractor. Other students mentor and tutor Beach Elementary students. One joined FFA just so she could do that.
“They get some accolades, they get some success” through such activities, Reyburn says. “They strive.”
All of his students have opportunities to strive and succeed while learning about the natural world in the school’s “land lab.” They tap maple trees for syrup, help cultivate a nine-acre community garden and will help cut up fallen ash trees on Northland Drive. Throw in hay rides, a corn maze and a barnyard animal day for elementary children this time of year.
Teaching Beyond the Test
Through it all, Reyburn seeks to teach lessons deeper than the topics on which students are tested more and more.
“Standards are important,” he says emphatically. “Kids have to know a lot. But in reality, in about 10 minutes I can find out anything I want to know on that,” he adds, picking up a cell phone.
While students going into specialized fields certainly need knowledge, he says, do future auto mechanics really need to know what a mitochondria is?
“When they get to high school, we teach them how to get along with somebody, how to work with other people, how to solve problems, how to live in society,” he says. “You need to know all those other things, about what life is.”
He learned a lot about that six years ago, when his house burned down just before Christmas. The community raised $50,000, and more than 100 people helped him rebuild.
For him, teaching the children of those helpers, and all the others who have passed through his classroom, is not so much a job as a joy.
“I know when I leave, I’ll miss it,” he says.