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Annawan teacher lives for when the lights go on
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Photo: John Greenwood
Terry Lancaster has been the ag teacher/FFA advisor at Annawan High School the past four years. 'You can't be afraid to get your hands dirty,' he said, and encourages students to try things and experiment with what might or might not work.
ANNAWAN -- Want to build a birdhouse, learn to weld, raise tilapia in a 550-gallon tank or fix a motor that seems doomed? Terry Lancaster is your man.

The vocational and agricultural teacher at Annawan High School has a workroom filled to the rafters with projects and resources at the ready, ranging from his hydroponics plant station to his collection of old diet Snapple bottles that the self-proclaimed "scrounger" knows will come in handy sometime.

As Mr. Lancaster puts it, "You could find more pristine shops, but I don't know if you can find one that gets used as often as ours."

Standing in the center of the workroom is like looking through a kaleidoscope, with a new project or treasure to spot from every angle. A workbench with 12 small motors is placed at the center of the room, where students work with manuals and small toolboxes to match up the instructional drawings to the real thing and repair units that don't work.

To the right of that is the welding area with a high quality industrial exhaust hood overhead. Mr. Lancaster is proud that this is the first year the students enrolled in his welding program can earn dual credit through Black Hawk College.

In addition to welding, Mr. Lancaster teaches introduction to agriculture, environmental science, physical science applications in agriculture, and agriculture mechanics. About half of the school's 108 students are enrolled in his courses, which are all electives.

Across the room is where students recently finished cutting and measuring their wood pieces for making a tool box, and in another corner awaits the incubator, where students hatch quail, pheasant and other eggs.

Scattered in between are a myriad of projects that vary widely enough to pique just about anyone's interest, Mr. Lancaster said.

"We do some fun things," he said. "I'm a real hands-on type of person."

Despite his hands-on job and lifestyle, Mr. Lancaster, 60, arrives to school each day at 7 a.m. in dress clothes and a tie. If safety needs dictate, he'll temporarily lose the tie or don a welding jacket, but otherwise he's committed to a polished appearance.

"There's just a little bit more respect built in," he said.

Mr. Lancaster's domain stretches beyond the confines of his workroom. One example is the three-acre plot of land not too far from school grounds where students learn to grow corn for popcorn, which they'll hand pick and then sell or give away. He also has a classroom where students study textbooks to prepare for units and learn about safety before getting into the workroom.

"This is where they don't want to be," Mr. Lancaster said of his classroom. "They want to be in the shop."

Like his take on what a vocational/agriculture classroom should be, Mr. Lancaster's career has been anything but single faceted.

He started out teaching in Annawan but left three years later to work at a John Deere dealership. After 25 years there, he worked five years for Hatzer and Nordstrom Equipment before returning to teach in Annawan, where he has worked the past four years. On top of his teaching and dealership careers, Mr. Lancaster followed a religious calling and earned his seminary degree, which has allowed him to serve as a minister for the last 18 years.

When not teaching or ministering, Mr. Lancaster advises the high school's Future Farmers of America chapter. About 40 of Annawan High School's students are involved, and six of them traveled last year to the national convention in Indianapolis. FFA activities include a variety of competitions, including soil judging and agronomy contests that pit Annawan members against other chapters.

Although metro school districts are struggling to reincorporate vocational programming into their course offerings, Mr. Lancaster said he thinks most smaller schools in rural areas have remained committed to offering students ag programs and FFA opportunities. He said Cambridge, AlWood, Kewanee, Bureau Valley and schools in other such districts all have agriculture programs that may vary, but have the same aim.

"I think our goals are the same: get kids excited about careers in agriculture," he said.

Mr. Lancaster has previously worked with students to pour sidewalks and build baseball diamond dugouts. Whatever the project, Mr. Lancaster said he loves seeing the satisfaction on students' faces when they see what rolling up their sleeves can do.

"They get excited when they do a good weld or do something constructive," he said. "I just like to see our kids do well and find opportunities in life."

Sometimes the experience of learning something constructive with Mr. Lancaster leads to careers. Mr. Lancaster said one of his students who participated in pouring sidewalks now works with a cement company. Others have gone on to good-paying welding jobs. Others have taken jobs in conservation, agriculture or have studied related subjects at college.

Mr. Lancaster has worked with his current group of students to restore seemingly worthless lawn mowers and a tractor that was determined by its previous owners to be a junker beyond repair. He said showing them how the right know-how and tools can restore something to perfect use is a joy and can prepare students for later on in life whether they enter agriculture-related careers or not.

"Each day is exciting to see the lights go on," he said.

Even if the spark started in Mr. Lancaster's vast workshop doesn't lead to a career, he said the lessons learned stick with the kids and can be invaluable.

Knowing how to find the answers to technical problems, knowing what's necessary to outfit a basic tool kit and knowing the basics of several common repairs are life-long resources.

Terry Lancaster

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