A veterinarian turned teacher looks forward to students’ ‘aha’ moments

Christy Herr, fourth from the left, holds her award from Ivy Tech Community College. Herr received the college’s top honor for dual credit faculty. (Image Courtesy of Ivy Tech)
How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs.

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It’s not unusual to find students in Christy Herr’s classes gardening, canning salsa, or weighing steers. As an agriscience educator, Herr wants her students to experience what it’s like to work with plants and animals.

“I look at my lesson plans for the day and wonder if I would want to be a student in my class,” said Herr, who spent 27 years as a food animal veterinarian before becoming a teacher. 

After five years of teaching at Hagerstown High School in Hagerstown, Indiana, Herr was recognized by Ivy Tech Community College this month as the statewide winner of Ivy Tech’s top honor for dual-credit faculty. 

Her professional background allows her Hagerstown students to earn postsecondary credentials through Ivy Tech and offers them a look at potential vocations in animal science. It’s the kind of career experience that has become a priority for Indiana as the state considers how to graduate more high school students who are ready for the workforce. 

“The realization that dual-credit classes could put my students ahead academically and financially once they left Hagerstown High School was enough motivation for me to do it,” said Herr, who spoke recently with Chalkbeat. 

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

How and when did you decide to become a teacher?

I spent 27 years working with all types of livestock as a food animal veterinarian. The physical stressors of the job had taken a toll on my shoulders and hands. My body was telling me it was time to find something else to do. 

At about the same time, the agriscience teacher position at HHS came open mid-year. The school contacted me, wondering if I would be willing to sub until the end of the semester. I took a leave of absence from the clinic and gave teaching a try. The students were great, and I really enjoyed the classroom environment. 

After looking into what it would take to transition my veterinary degree to teaching, I decided to make a career change. That was one of the hardest decisions I have ever made in my life. I truly mourned the loss of the great veterinarians, the office staff. and the clients I got to work with every day. That caught me by surprise.

The opportunity to work with students and show them how their worlds are touched by agriculture was exciting. It still is. I am hooked and so thankful for a second career that I enjoy, that is rewarding and allows me to promote agriculture.

What’s your favorite lesson to teach or activity to lead, and why?

My favorite lessons to teach happen when my old career and new career collide. The cardiovascular unit in [the course] Advanced Life Science: Animals would be an example. I can use disease processes in animals to help the students understand how the heart works and the function of the different parts of that system. When we dissect the heart, the students can finally put it all together, touching and seeing what we have been covering in class. It is great to see all of the ‘aha’ moments that take place.

How is a dual-credit course different from a standard high school course? What are the benefits?

I really like that I can give the students a taste of what college classes look like. They’re getting a college course experience but from the comfort of their home high school and alongside a smaller cohort of students. Differences from a standard high school course would include accepting very few excuses for late work, bigger penalties for any work turned in late, and increased academic rigor. I expect higher quality work from the students who are earning college credit. 

The Chemistry 101 year-end final was a beast and took the students several hours to complete. I tried to get them to understand that in a university setting, they could very well take a second final exam like that in a different course on the same day during finals week. Being introduced to situations like that is a huge benefit of the dual-credit experience.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received on teaching, and how have you put it into practice?

I had several teachers tell me that building relationships with the students is important and will drive the learning that takes place in my classroom. They were 100% correct. The attendance question each day has allowed me to connect with each student a little more as the year moves along. My favorite is asking each student to write down the title of a song they are likely to play on repeat. Each Friday, I play one of those songs, and the class tries to figure out which classmate picked that song. This has been a great way to relate with the students and add a few new songs to my playlist.

Tell us about your own experience with school and how it affects your work today.

East Central High School [in St. Leon, Indiana] provided me with a great education and experience. All of my teachers were top-notch, but I was always drawn to the science classes. Mr. Tucker, Mr. Wilson, and Mr. Crabil were always so excited about the material and provided great hands-on opportunities. My goal is to do the same. I look at my lesson plans for the day and wonder if I would want to be a student in my class.

Tell us about any summer plans or what you’re looking forward to next year!

My goal this summer is to rest, read a few books, and practice hiking up and down hills. In October, my family will be heading to the Grand Canyon to hike from rim to rim in one day. Hopefully, there will not be a news story about rescuing an old teacher from the bottom of the canyon! 

As far as the next school year goes, I am just looking forward to seeing the students again. We will be incubating eggs, weighing steers, canning salsa, and planting gardens within the first few months. That is all exciting to me.

Aleksandra Appleton covers Indiana education policy and writes about K-12 schools across the state. Contact her at aappleton@chalkbeat.org.

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