Rich Schneider is starting his 30th year in the Education field as Yellow Medicine East’s new superintendent. We sat down with him to get some insight into his background, and his thoughts about how to help the YME community address its challenges. Schneider loves the rural setting. He grew up farming as one of eight siblings. He still gets his farming fix now and then when he visits home in Spencer, South Dakota.

Interestingly, neither of his parents graduated from high school. His dad dropped out after 8th grade to help on the family farm. He was drafted into the Army. His mom married his dad just before he was deployed. Schneider found his love of education during an internship with his former high school biology teacher. He found he loved being around kids, talking, and hearing their stories. He became a science and math teacher for 12 years before stepping up to be a middle and high school principal for 17 years. He also dabbled in coaching a variety of sports and activities.

At the same time, Schneider served in the South Dakota National Guard for 28 years. “I think next to getting married and having kids, signing up for the military was the most impactful thing I did.” He was a diesel mechanic for most of the years, and later became a First Sergeant. When he moved to Minnesota, he decided to leave the military, both for the geographical challenge and the fact that he knew he couldn’t climb the ladder any further.

There were other ladders he could climb. In 2015, he got his Superintendent’s endorsement. The reason he moved from teaching to being a principal was the opportunity to have a greater impact on the school. The same thing applied to being a superintendent. “I’ve always thrived on having greater responsibilities.” He credits the military with helping him learn leadership skills. “I learned to be a leader in tough times, and I think that’s a good skill for a school administrator.”

That mentality will help a lot as he works with the YME community on the challenges they are facing. In Blue Earth Area High School, he worked to convert as many AP courses to concurrent enrollment as he could. This changed it so the classes were considered college level and the student would get a letter grade instead of having it all ride on the AP final exam, and needing to get a high number score or be out of luck for the course counting for college credit.

Then, in the fall of 2016, the Board of Education made a requirement to have high school teachers that were teaching college level classes have to have a Masters in the subject they were teaching. Most teachers have a Masters in education. The challenge facing all schools offering college level classes is “How do teachers afford and have time for earning 20 graduate studies level credits?” The Legislature has put some money into funding to help teachers get their Masters.

“I can’t say I fully support the decision, because sometimes higher universities only look at content knowledge as the criteria for being a good teacher. I have had and seen teachers that may not have a great grasp of the content beyond what the students need to know, but can relate to students so the students learn it well and get inspired to pursue the field further. I think we undervalue that. I’m going to have to continue to look at programs that are statewide to help our teachers get those 20 credits.”

Another looming challenge to YME is the co-linked problems of enrollment and funding. “Education has become a free market. Students will vote with their feet. We as public schools have to market ourselves, to show we’re the best show in town. We believe you can get the best education here, and you get to interact with fellow students every day.”

That in-person interaction and connection is a huge pillar of Schneider’s perspective on education. “Our world is based on interactions with people. We need them to experience that when they are here.” “Not everything about attending a physical school is positive, but not everything about PSEO is positive either. I’ve seen a lot of students stub their toe when they try online classes.” “I believe for the majority of students, doing school online without anything in person isn’t the best option for them. Our failure rate at Blue Earth with online opportunities was probably close to 50% because there’s not someone there holding their hand on a daily basis. Everyone sees the internet as the solution for the skill set students need. It’s not enough without the proper guidance.”

“Sure, I can Google the Capitol of Minnesota, but what I do with that isn’t something I can google. The communication, collaboration, critical thinking, 21st century skills are what we want students to develop, and we can develop them in-house, and not online.”

The next component is helping guide students to make the most of their educational opportunities. In the student orientation, he challenged every student, “ Push yourself and try something. Stick with it, finish the season. Any activity or sport. Every single coach and athletic director will work with you to overcome any obstacles, and there’s something special about being around a special niche that supports you.”

Schneider developed his immense work ethic balancing growing up farming, schoolwork, and activities, as well as in the military. He hopes to help foster that growth, learning, and self-discipline, which then evolves into passion. Passion creates an upward spiral where students can really flourish.

“I think all of us have been successful when we are willing to work hard towards a goal. We can’t be afraid of the hard work. Sometimes when we work we fail. If we stop at failure, we may never reach the goal. It’s about how we learn from failing that will determine how we’ll succeed in the future.”