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‘A champion for our kids’: FFA advisor earns state recognition

Rockstar Teacher: Brent Willett

Cedar Springs — Brent Willett wears many hats: teacher of plant and animal science classes at Cedar Springs High School, Future Farmers of America advisor, bus driver for the district and sponsor of 13 different independent study courses, to name a few.

Now he can add one more: Michigan Horticulture Teachers Association’s Teacher of the Year.

Willett was selected as the 2023 recipient of the award during a three-day MHTA conference in late January at Spring Meadows Nursery. 

Willett said association members vote based on “word of mouth,” and what they see teachers doing to promote and advance the world of horticulture education.

Willett’s Teacher of the Year award from the Michigan Horticulture Teachers Association (courtesy)

“It’s truly just, ‘Hey, this is who I saw doing good things this year,’” Willett said. 

So what made Willett stand out? 

Principal Todd Simmons will tell you it’s a matter of passion.

“What makes Mr. Willett a champion for our kids is his work habits, his commitment and just his passion for this place,” Simmons said. “He doesn’t talk about it, he does it. He walks it. The amount of time that he puts in, above and beyond, that people don’t see — it’s phenomenal.”

That work ethic is on clear display in Willett’s classroom, where he can be found overseeing activities, answering questions and snaking his way from lecture area to lab to outdoor learning spaces without breaking stride. He balances it all like a master juggler.

It’s an impressive sight. But Willett’s work extends beyond the classroom walls.

‘I want students to be able to take what they learn here and apply it to their life every day.’

— Cedar Springs High School teacher Brent Willett

Getting Students Involved

One of the things that probably stood out to MHTA members when they voted for Willett, he said, is that his class was one of the first in the state to purchase Flex Farms. The indoor, vertical hydroponic setups allow students to grow their own lettuce for use in the school kitchen.

“We currently have three, and we’re producing lettuce basically every three weeks,” Willett said. “It’s grown right here in the classroom.”

With Willett’s guidance, students do almost all the work, from planting seeds to nutrient management.

“They’re doing food safely, basically managing a small business,” Willett said. “It’s 100% student-managed and it’s become a big part of our program.”

This month, he’s teaching students how to collect maple sap to produce syrup. He also oversaw the conversion of a vacant sunroom at the high school into a “full-scale commercial greenhouse.” 

In addition, he helps with a spring plant sale where students ply their own produce and hanging-plant flower baskets.

“That’s sparked a lot of interest,” Willett said of the sale, “because students say, ‘There’s money here.’”

Students appreciate Willett’s hands-on, interactive approach.

“He teaches you in a way that you’re having fun. You don’t think you’re learning but when you get to the test, you’re like, ‘OK, I actually learned this, and I got this done,’” said ninth-grader Noah Kasten. “He’s just a really good guy, a nice man, a good teacher. He helps out with problems if you need it, and he’s always there for you.”

Eli Kleynenberg, a senior and president of Cedar Springs’ FFA chapter, also touted Willett’s ability to relate to students, saying it’s a major strength. 

“He connects to the kids really well, and I think a lot of kids see him as a role model,” Eli said.

Taryn Troupe is a 2021 Cedar Springs graduate and former FFA member who now works as a teacher’s aide in Willett’s class. 

“He’s definitely done a lot for the program and a lot to increase membership with activities we do throughout the year,” she said. “He just makes it a lot of fun.”

More to Come

Willett has big plans for the future. He’s hoping to do more with egg production from the district’s chickens, build a cold-storage facility and add other resources to keep expanding the possibilities for the district’s agriculture and horticulture students.

A new greenhouse is expected to be constructed at the high school this summer using dollars from the district’s 2020 bond project. Once the facility is built, Willett hopes to usher in some additional programming to bolster produce yields.

He’s also working on launching a composting initiative for the high school.

All of these plans are prime examples of why Willett loves what he does.

“It’s projects like these — that students truly get fired up about and take the lead on — that keeps me going,” he said. “I want students to be able to take what they learn here and apply it to their life every day.”

Read more from Cedar Springs: 
Building character: ALC members visit Green Acres
Students ‘love the hype’ of Fitnesspalooza

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Riley Kelley
Riley Kelley
Riley Kelley is a reporter covering Cedar Springs, Grand Rapids, East Grand Rapids and Sparta school districts. An award-winning journalist, Riley spent eight years with the Ludington Daily News, reporting, copy editing, paginating and acting as editor for its weekly entertainment section. He also contributed to LDN’s sister publications, Oceana’s Herald-Journal and the White Lake Beacon. His reporting on issues in education and government has earned accolades from the Michigan Press Association and Michigan Associated Press Media Editors. Riley’s early work in journalism included a stint as an on-air news reporter for WMOM Radio, and work on the editorial staff of various student publications. Riley is a graduate of Grand Valley State University. He originally hails from western Washington.


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