YELM - The sweet, earthy scent of fresh soil fills the greenhouse.
Agriculture teacher Mike Patrick is wearing a pair of slacks, a checked, long-sleeved dress shirt and a huge grin as he slops water and soil around in a jumbo-sized wheelbarrow.
“It’s like playing in the dirt,” he tells students in his 10th-grade honors biology class. “Didn’t you ever make mud pies?”
Yelm High School’s commercial-sized greenhouses often serve as classrooms for Patrick, 47, who was recently named an Outstanding Teacher by the National Association of Agricultural Educators.
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Patrick, who has taught at Yelm for 14 years, heads up the school’s seven-teacher Agri-Science Department. He also serves as an adviser for the school’s FFA chapter. Those letters once stood for “Future Farmers of America,” but the name was changed to “The National FFA Organization” in 1988 to reflect the changing trends in agricultural education.
Ag education is a huge part of this 1,130-student school and in this rural community. A whopping 500 students participate in FFA projects, which include everything from teaching fourth-graders about apples and leading Adopt-a-Family efforts during the holidays, to organizing a teen driver safety campaign and participating in landscape design competitions.
“It’s the largest (chapter) in the state of Washington,” said Yelm ag teacher Elaine Lewis, 52. “And we’re one of the largest in the nation.”
Patrick grew up in the rural community of Ridgefield in Clark County. He was an FFA member in high school. During his junior year, his mom saw a newspaper article about a statewide shortage of ag teachers.
“She said, ‘You know, that would be a good job for you, Mike,’ ” Patrick said. “And there I went.”
He studied Agriculture Education at Washington State University, and did his student teaching at Yelm High School in 1986. He went on to teach ag in the Montesano School District for three years.
By then, he and his wife, Chenelle, had a young family. Patrick said he had a difficult time finding a balance between home life and the demands of teaching, so he pursued other work.
“I was out of teaching for eight years,” Patrick said.
He and his wife ran her parents’ dairy farm for a few years, and then he managed a feed store in Chehalis.
But Dennis Wallace, who taught ag at Yelm for 27 years, never forgot about Patrick’s natural talent in the classroom. He tried to persuade him to return to the school three different times before Patrick finally accepted a job offer.
“He’s the kind of teacher that every parent wants their kid to run into,” said Wallace, 56, of Olympia, who is now a program supervisor in the Career and Technical Education division at the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. “He’s one you know is going to treat them with respect and hold them up to high expectations.”
Patrick said the time away from education but working in the industry made him a better agriculture teacher and FFA adviser.
“When I came back, I came back with the purpose of wanting to work with kids and impact their future,” he said.
Patrick was nominated for the Outstanding Teacher award in the district about a year ago. He won the state-level award in July.
Because school agriculture programs vary across the country, the National Association of Agricultural Educators selects an outstanding teacher in each of its six regions. In August, Patrick learned he was the winner for Region I, which includes Washington, Alaska, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Nevada, Utah, Hawaii, California and Arizona.
“It was pretty exciting,” he said. “I quickly went to the cell phone and texted my wife and kids and told them I won,” he said. “I don’t think I realized the magnitude of the award until I had to go to the national ag teacher convention (at the end of November in Las Vegas).”
As part of his award, Patrick won a two-year lease of a 2011 Toyota Tundra pickup truck. He didn’t get to choose the color, but he’s come to terms with the fact that it’s charcoal gray.
“It’s an important color – it’s a Cougar color,” Patrick said with a chuckle.
Yelm sophomore Jeremy Tucker, 16, said Patrick has made honors biology into one of his favorite classes.
“If it’s a boring activity and he knows it, he’ll find a way to catch our interest,” Tucker said.
To keep his students engaged, Patrick said he’s developed a “progressive, challenging curriculum.”
In addition to learning the basics required by the state, he requires students develop position papers, brochures, skits, labs or presentations on topics such as stem-cell research, genetic diseases, bio-technology and genetically modified foods.
On a recent morning, the students in his honors biology class planted tiny fuchsia plants in hanging baskets. They will care for those plants for the next few months.
“What happens if your plant dies?” Patrick asked the students.
“Your grade dies,” they said in chorus.
Students describe Patrick’s teaching style as casual, fun and hands-on. He’s more of a storyteller than a lecturer. And his students’ projects tend to be run more like business enterprises, and less like academia research efforts.
“He compares schoolwork with his everyday life,” said sophomore Ranya Soeung, 15. “He’s very enthusiastic.”
Patrick’s co-workers describe him as “the ultimate professional” who works hard to help kids find their niche at the school.
“He works here an awful darn lot,” said ag science teacher Matt Mounts, 33. “It’s not uncommon to come in here on Monday and have a couple of e-mails that he sent during the weekend.”
In addition to plant biology, Patrick teaches greenhouse management, landscape design and landscape maintenance.
One of the biggest parts of his job is helping students prepare for the annual FFA plant sale at the end of April.
“Last year, we sold $17,000 in plants,” Patrick said. “And that’s all student projects. It was all grown by kids – they did it all.”
Even though it’s his name on the award and he was given the set of truck keys, Patrick credits the national teaching award to a combination of good administrative support, great teaching partners and outstanding community support.
“It goes hand-in-hand with the award,” he said.
Patrick said he’s considered moving to a district administration job, but he doesn’t think he’s ready to leave the classroom – or the greenhouse – just yet.
“You can definitely see his passion and that it’s what he really loves to do,” said senior Farrah French, 17. “That it’s not just a job.”
A devout Christian, Patrick said he believes he’ll end up wherever God wants him to go.
“My mind and heart’s open to wherever I land,” Patrick said. “So right now, I’m enjoying teaching.”