Top teacher inspired by his mentors
When you ask Derrick Meyer about his teaching career, it is very easy to see the influence past teachers have had on his life. Whether it’s the numerous small animals he has in his classroom or the style in which he teaches, Meyer has had many positive influences on his life that contributed to the teacher he is today. And today, Meyer is being honored as one of the 2021 State of Wisconsin Teachers of the Year.
A 1990 graduate of Loyal High School and a teacher of agriscience and driver’s education at the Amery School District, Meyer was one of five teachers in the entire state to be selected for the annual honor and the first ever from the Amery School District. He was notified about his award on Aug. 27 after a year-long process, which started with an application that led to him being awarded the Herb Kohl Fellowship Scholarship.
“So the process started back in August of last year,” he said. “I found out I was nominated in September, I believe. I had to fill out an application by October. I filled out the application, but I didn’t find out I was nominated for the Herb Kohl award until February … There’s about 86 teachers that get picked for the state of Wisconsin. They take the 86 and pick four or five of those each year as the Wisconsin Teachers of the Year … I was aware of the Herb Kohl award, but I didn’t know about the Teacher of the Year, I thought they picked them in May. So when that date passed, I didn’t think I made it. I saw the 2020 awardees and thought those were the teachers that were picked this year. I found out instead though that we were the 2021 teachers, they choose us a year ahead of time.” Despite the initial confusion, Meyer said it has been a great honor to have been chosen for the award. “It’s quite an honor,” he said. “I am very honored by it. I think it’s important for me to embrace it and represent the teachers we have at Amery and Wisconsin. We have really amazing teachers in Wisconsin.”
Those amazing Wisconsin teachers Meyer refers to are not just today’s teachers. Throughout his entire life, Meyer has had several teachers serve as a positive example for him. The first of these teachers was his father, Danny Meyer, who was himself a graduate of Loyal High School and an agriculture teacher.
“My dad was a teacher when I was young,” he said. “When I was two or three, I remember him being on TV and being recognized. I remember his students, I remember going to all these different events. I thought my dad had one of the coolest jobs of all time. I want to be a part of that.”
The influence of teachers continued as Meyer started his own schooling. The first teacher to have an impact on him there was his kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Gwen Pigott, who stuck with him throughout the rest of his schooling in Loyal.
“I have had so many amazing teachers,” he said. “My kindergarten with Mrs. Pigott, she had a rabbit in her room. I loved it so much, and thought it was so cool to have animals in the classroom. Today I have about 30 small animals in my classroom and we train about 60 horses each year. Mrs. Pigott followed me all the way through, went to all of my wrestling tournaments, and was there to console me when I lost in the state finals.”
Beyond kindergarten, Meyer was able to name several other teachers who influenced him during his grade school and high school years. Whether it was his sixthgrade teacher, Mrs. Fischer, his high school English teacher, Mrs. Butterbrodt, or his agriculture teachers, they all taught him something that he carried with him for the rest of his life.
“Loyal was a great starting point for myself,” he said. “Loyal is an amazing family community, the town is built around the school, the town takes pride in the school and what it’s all about. I look back very fondly on Loyal and growing up there. I was lucky I got to be a part of it. I will never forget my roots and where I come from.” Even with all the positive teacher influences in his life, there was a brief time when his faith was tested. In college, he said he lost the passion that had driven him to pursue a teaching career. Still pushing forward with his education, it wasn’t long before he found his spark again, with help from yet another teacher. “In college I lost the passion to teach,” he said. “I thought I was going to go into extension. But I was so far though in my ag education, almost done with my ag education degree that I decided to just finish it out … Mr. Gary Ganje, he changed my life forever. He gave me my passion back, and I loved the way he taught his kids. I modeled my whole teaching off of him. He became an important part of my life.”
It was also during Meyer’s college years that he fell in love with the Amery area. While in school, he said he fell in love with his future wife, Debbie, who was from Amery. Living with her parents while she went to school, he said he got his first taste of teaching there as a student teacher and wanted to return there someday.
“When I left here, I wanted to come back to Amery, but I didn’t think that it would be possible,” he said.
His post-graduation teaching career first took him to Random Lake, a small community about 35 miles from Milwaukee. Though he only stayed there for a semester, Meyer said he restarted a program at the school that had been defunct for four years. Today, that school still has the program, and it remains strong.
“I restarted a program there that didn’t have a teacher for four years, they still have a wonderful program there,” he said. “I left there because I was going to be married to my wife Debbie, and I didn’t want to live down in Milwaukee.”
To be closer to home, Meyer next took a job as the animal science teacher at Stevens Point. As one of the largest schools in the state, he said there were several other teachers in the agriculture department, allowing him to focus on the animal part of agriculture.
“I took a job up in Stevens Point and was there for eight years,” he said. “I really enjoyed my time in Stevens Point. I was the third ag teacher there. One teacher taught horticulture, I taught animal science. It was the largest school in the state of Wisconsin. When I left, they were up to four-and-a-half agriculture teachers.”
Meyer was finally able to return to Amery in 2005 when a position opened up there for an agriculture teacher. He gladly took the job, and almost 10 years later, also took up teaching driver’s education at the school, saving that program from being terminated.
“I took over driver’s ed, If I didn’t, they were planning on getting rid of it,” he said. “I thought I had something I could bring, my brother Danny was killed by a drunk driver. I knew I had something to teach them. I wanted to talk to them about the importance of not drinking and driving. I didn’t become the instructor because I wanted more work, I did it because they had a need at the school and I thought I had a message that was important for the kids to hear. I now get to meet with every freshman and sophomore. I didn’t get to know them all before, now I get to meet them all. I love the personal relationships I can have with the kids.”
He also loves teaching. From the start, Meyer said teaching itself has been a learning process, a process to figure out what works for each student. As students come and go, he said those processes tend to change, forcing him to learn new methods and techniques to continue to reach and make an impact with his students.
“When I look back to all the past people, as a teacher, there’s no way of doing it exactly correct,” he said. “I am continually learning new techniques. I am very open minded to trying new things. I have more failures than successes in my classrooms. Things don’t always work. Everyone needs to be a lifelong learner. Students are changing all the time, we don’t learn the same way as our kids and we didn’t learn the same way as our parents. You need to be able to change with the times to make sure you’re meeting the needs of all your kids.” Along with meeting the needs of the kids, Meyer said it is also important for teachers and parents to be able to recognize talent and find what each kid loves to do.
“Laugh and learn a little. Talk about the future,” he said. “I think it’s important, there’s a lot of pressure put on kids. Parents want what is best for their kids, and they want their lives to be better than theirs. Look at yourself and find what you love to do. The worst thing to do is find a job you don’t like and only do it for the paycheck. Take things you love to do and find a job that meets those needs.”
“Loyal is an amazing family community, the town is built around the school, the town takes pride in the school and what it’s all about. I look back very fondly on Loyal and growing up there. I was lucky I got to be a part of it. I will never forget my roots and where I come from.” -- Derrick Meyer