Jerry Janisch has been selected as the 2019 Milbank School District Teacher of the Year. Janisch has been the agricultural education instructor and has also guided the Milbank FFA Chapter to success locally and at state and national competitions since 1992. The award, recognizing Janisch individually as an exceptional educator, can also be seen as icing on the cake for Milbank FFA, which is in the midst of celebrating its 75th year as a chapter in South Dakota.
Superintendent Graf commended Janisch on his award by saying, “Mr. Janisch has done a tremendous job in the classroom and with the FFA program for many years. We are fortunate to have him in the district and the Milbank FFA chapter has an outstanding tradition of excellence under his leadership.”
Janisch was selected for the award by nominations. One nomination lauded Janisch saying, “Teachers are an important part of a child’s development. Mr. Janisch has proven time and time again to be a positive influence and has helped them find their niche and make memories that last a lifetime. It is time to recognize this outstanding, dedicated educator for putting Milbank High School and the Milbank FFA chapter on the national map as a nationally recognized ag education program.”
Another nomination, this one by a former student, highlighted several skills acquired under Janisch’s tutelage, “Dedication was plain and simple with Mr. Janisch. You say you are going to do something – you do it! There is no explanation needed, other than this is one of the most important skills I learned from him. And finally, professionalism. It is no secret that the Milbank FFA program will always be in official dress at all times in competition and at the leadership events. In high school, it seemed petty but being aware of how I’m presenting myself both physically and in the way I act has provided me with not only opportunities, but confidence in what I am doing and who I am.”
Kiera Leddy, MHS alumna and former FFA member, profiled Janisch’s decision to become an ag educator and his subsequent career at Milbank High School :
Jerry Janisch recalled more than 20 applicants were in contention for the Milbank High School agricultural education position. Dave Bergan, Milbank High School principal at the time, said he narrowed the applicants down to four candidates to interview – Janisch and his brother, Greg, were two of those candidates.
“When Jerry applied for the job, he did not have a lot of experience and his chapter at Waubay [South Dakota] was not big,” Bergan said. “However, the chapter was outstanding and had a strong reputation. This led us on the hiring committee to feel like this was the guy we wanted to come in and move the Milbank FFA Chapter in the right direction.”
Bergan said he visited Waubay High School because he was on a team of educators for a Waubay School District school improvement project.
“I had the opportunity to go back to his shop and watch him work with the students,” Bergan said. “He had a good way about him, one you would like to have your child experience as a student.”
Later that day, Janisch said he was offered the contract, he had a week to think about it. He said he felt he took the Waubay FFA Chapter as far as he could and wanted a new challenge. He signed the contract on May 15, 1992, and the rest is history, said Janisch, Milbank FFA advisor and agricultural education teacher.
“Jerry was the one we settled on, and he has done a heck of a job,” Bergan said.
Janisch’s life did not always revolve around the agricultural industry, he said. Instead of taking agricultural education classes and joining FFA in high school like his brothers, he said he took industrial arts. Even more so, he said majoring in agricultural education while at South Dakota University [sic] was a fluke.
“I went out to eat with two of my friends while we were in Brookings getting ready for college classes to start,” Janisch said. “After eating they said, ‘Well, we have to go to Clark Hanson’s office and sign some forms as agricultural education majors.’”
Janisch said he decided to tag along. As they were signing their names, Janisch said Hanson, past South Dakota State University agricultural education professor, slipped him a form and said, “You might as well sign one, too.”
“[Hanson] was my college advisor and mentor throughout my career,” Janisch said. “We still are good friends to this day.”
When he began, the program was traditional and had low FFA membership, Janisch said.
Bergan said he was at first worried about the situation of the chapter because of the low membership. However, Janisch always had ideas and was not afraid to get kids involved, Bergan said. The implementation of a greenhouse behind the school is a prime example, he added.
“Mr. Janisch was not a horticulture person, but he was not afraid to venture out,” Bergan said. “The greenhouse is still probably one of the highest quality greenhouses attached to a school in the state of South Dakota.”
The greenhouse was built was [sic] because students in horticulture class believed they needed it, Janisch said. He investigated greenhouses, talked to experts in the field, and developed a plan, he added.
The greenhouse cost $75,000 and was paid for through the support of the Milbank Community Foundation, Milbank Economic Development and the Milbank School Board.
“The first thing that comes to mind when I think of Mr. Janisch is his work ethic,” said Dan Snaza, Milbank High School principal. “I would say he ranks up with the hardest working teachers in the building. He puts in so many evenings. We do have a lot of staff who do put in extra hours, but it sometimes seems like the guy lives up here.”
Janisch said being an agricultural education teacher is more than being in the classroom from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.
“I try and get to school around 7 a.m. because I like to work in the morning,” Janisch said. “I like to keep my door open in case students stop by.”
The teaching portion of his day begins at 8:15 a.m. and involves teaching six different classes. After school gets out at 3:15 p.m., Janisch said he will have meetings with students, grade papers, and prepare for the next day. He said he tries to leave around 5 p.m. On weekends, he said he will come into the classroom to catch up on paperwork and lesson plans.
“It is just a routine I started ever since I began teaching,” Janisch said.
Snaza said teaching six different classes is unique at the school, but Janisch never complains about it. Janisch does everything from classroom teaching to teaching in the shop. He even attends FFA functions around the state to stay informed, Snaza said.
Another way Janisch is a unique teacher is by the number of community members he includes in the FFA program, Snaza said.
“He is not afraid to admit that he does not know a lot about one area,” Bergan said. “He will go find someone in the community who is knowledgeable on the topic. It is something a lot of people do not do.”
When students belong and are involved in an organization, such as FFA, the school functions better, Snaza added.
“The students are not just coming to school because they have to,” Snaza said. “They are coming because they are a part of an activity and it gives them more motivation. His FFA chapter has motivated a lot of students to come to school and continue to further their education in the agricultural industry.”
In December 2002, Janisch faced a situation, which many teachers may never face in their careers. Justin Maass, a member of the Milbank FFA Chapter, died while the chapter was in Pierre, South Dakota, competing at the State FFA Leadership Development Contest.
“I was downstairs at the Governor’s Inn having coffee when my chapter president at the time, Jenna Mueller, came rushing down to tell me Justin had collapsed,” Janisch said.
Later that day, Janisch said he informed the parents and the school Maass died because of a heart condition.
“That was the longest day of my career,” Janisch said. “It still bothers me, but I know there is nothing I could have done differently.”
Maass was an avid Milbank FFA member, Janisch said. He competed in contests in both the spring and fall semesters. He was also a member of the dairy foods judging team. His team won the state championship after Maass’ passing, which gave the team the opportunity to compete at the National FFA Convention.
“When the team won the state championship, they dedicated the next six months to winning the national contest,” Janisch said. “We became the first chapter in South Dakota history to win the dairy foods judging career development event at the national level.”
When the community is faced with a tragedy, Snaza said, one can rely on Janisch to step up and provide support for those hurting.
When Ty Schaffer, a third-grader at Koch Elementary School, was diagnosed with leukemia in 2018, Janisch received a text message from Kellie Christians, an FFA chapter officer. She asked him if the FFA chapter could host a fundraiser for Schaffer, he said.
The next day, Janisch said he received a similar text message from Claire Mischel, another FFA chapter officer. He sat them down later that day to help them create a plan, he said.
“I split the officers into two teams, Team Kellie and Team Claire,” Janisch said. “I gave them two weeks to raise $1,000. If they raised $1,000, I would take the officer team to Shady Beach Grille for supper. For the life of me, I only thought they were going to raise a couple hundred dollars.”
Janisch knows how to work with students, Snaza said, which is one of the reasons he is so successful in anything he does.
“He knows as adults if we tell the students what to do, we will never get them to participate,” Snaza said. “If the idea come from the students, they have more ownership in it and that is what happened with the Ty Schaeffer fundraiser.”
By the end of the two weeks, the officer team had raised $3,114.
“I learned from Mr. Bergan to set high goals and push your students toward them,” Janisch said. “Just keep pushing them. You have to believe in the students or you will never accomplish anything.”
This year, the Milbank FFA Chapter is celebrating its 75th anniversary. Janisch is the fifth teacher to teach at the school since chartered in 1943.
“Some schools are not as lucky and have gone through a new teacher each year the past four years,” Janisch said. “I could have retired three years ago, but I think, ‘what would I do with myself?’”
Janisch has traveled with more than 30 teams to compete at the National FFA Convention during his career and has achieved two national championships, numerous runners-up, and multiple American degree recipients.
“Mr. Janisch is leading one of, if not the top, program in the state in terms of accomplishments,” Bergan said.
Janisch said he believes students from Milbank, South Dakota, can compete with anyone in the nation as long as they have the right support and preparation.
“The amount of time he puts in is unique compared to most FFA advisors,” Snaza said. “He really puts his heart and soul into what he does on a daily basis.”
The program has gone through many changes in the past 75 years, Janisch said. For a chapter to be this old and successful in competitions and in the classroom is unique, he added.
“I have learned throughout the years to just try and be a duck,” Janisch said. “Be calm and collected on the outside, but paddle like heck underneath the surface.”