Featured Teacher: Andrew Helming

Photos by Kaiti Sullivan/The Herald
Jasper High School agriculture teacher Andrew Helming helps junior Julia Gobert with an assignment during class at Jasper High School recently. "I just have a passion for agriculture," Helming said. "It's important and everybody's going to starve without it."

By LEANN BURKE
lburke@dcherald.com

JASPER — When Jasper High School agriculture teacher Andrew Helming joined the school’s staff in 2015, the program was offered only two periods a day. Now, just under four years later, it’s a full-day program that requires two teachers.

JHS Principal Brian Wilson credits much of the program’s rapid growth to Helming. It’s been impressive work from a man who never thought he’d be a teacher.

The son of Ed and Connie (Hulsman) Helming grew up in Kyana and graduated from Forest Park Junior-Senior High School in 2011. When he graduated high school, Helming recalled, he had no idea what he wanted to do. He’d always dreamed of taking over the farm his grandparents — Richard and Martha Hulsman — operated in Kyana. It made sense. Farming is in his blood on both sides of his family. His paternal grandparents, Norbert and Dorothy Helming, operated Helming Dairy in Ferdinand.

But his high school agriculture teacher, Annette Applegate, encouraged him to pursue a degree in agriculture education.

School wasn’t Helming’s favorite thing — it was the ag classes that kept him interested, but he decided to accept Applegate’s advice.

“The thought was teaching, but I knew with ag ed I could go and do more,” Helming said. “I could go work in seed sales or anywhere in the ag industry with that degree.”

Helming graduated from Purdue University in West Lafayette in 2015 and started teaching at Jasper High School in the 2015-16 school year.

It didn’t take long for Helming to grow Jasper’s ag program. In his first year of teaching, he stayed with the part-time schedule, offering two plant-based classes — landscaping, and plants and soils. In his second year, he overhauled the program, taking it to a full day and shifting the focus to animal-based classes. The plant-based classes are still offered, but Helming said they rarely get the 10 students needed to offer the class.

“I think kids like the animal aspect,” he said. “They want to learn about cute little fuzzy animals. Plants aren’t as interesting and fun as playing with an animal.”

Helming certainly likes the animals. Of the four classes he’s teaching this semester —  agriculture power structures (mechanics), natural resources, animal science and advanced life science animals — the two animal science courses are his favorite.

“He built that program just by connecting with students on relevant experiences and building relationships,” Wilson said. “That says a lot about what he’s brought to the program.”

This is Helming's fifth year at Jasper High School and currently teaches four different courses in agriculture.

While administrators credit Helming with growing the program, Helming credits the experiences his classes offer with attracting more students. All of his classes are hands on, and often involve students caring directly for animals. This semester, for example, his animal life science class is caring for a flock of chickens and running a semester-long experiment in which one group of chickens is fed a diet with normal protein levels, and another is fed a lower protein diet. The students have been tracking the chickens’ growth and comparing the two groups to learn the importance of including enough protein in a diet. At the end of the semester, the class will partner with the culinary arts class to butcher, process and cook the chickens. The two programs team up in the second semester for a similar project with a hog.

For a lot of his animal science students, Helming said, the animal processing labs are what bring them to the classes.

In other classes, students are caring for the schools of fish needed to run an aquaculture and an aquaponics system. Aquaculture is the farming of marine organisms such as fish, crustaceans and aquatic plants. Aquaponics combines aquaculture and hydroponics, using water from the fish tanks to nourish a bed of plants and the plants to filter the water before it returns to the fish tanks. Students also manage a hydroponics system, and all three systems are housed in a warehouse space that connects to Helming’s classroom on the school’s east side.

In addition to teaching ag classes, Helming also leads the school’s Future Farmers of America program. That program, too, has seen swift growth under his leadership. When he took it over in 2015, the club went to two events each year — the national convention and the farm machinery show. As soon as Helming arrived, he added the FFA leadership program and the soils competition to the club. Since then, he’s added several more offerings to the FFA program, and the club now participates in about 10 competitions a year.

“It’s really got something for everybody,” senior John Summerlot said of the FFA.

Summerlot joined FFA his freshman year, the first year Helming taught at JHS. Now, he serves as the club’s sentinel.

Looking at the success Helming has had with Jasper’s agriculture program, it’s easy to wonder what his weaknesses are. According to Summerlot and FFA President Katie Stenftenagel, he’s not the best minibus driver. They should know, as they’ve spent several hours in a minibus with him traveling to and from FFA events. Of course, they also wouldn’t say he’s the worst minibus driver, either, and they’re quick to add that they’ve never been unsafe when he’s behind the wheel.

Junior Samuel Riehle, left, senior Conner Fleck, his brother, senior Kevin Fleck, agriculture teacher Andrew Helming and junior Luke Schmitt replace the net over a fish tank after feeding the fish during class at Jasper High School. "It's a passion. It's not a job to me," Helming said. "I'm one of them that can't sit idle. I constantly have to be doing something and one thing with ag is it's never the same thing every day." 

His minibus skills should improve, though, as Helming is also pursuing his bus driver’s license to help with the corporation’s bus driver shortage.

In addition to the growth he’s brought to the agriculture department, Helming has also become a teacher students seek out in their free time. Wilson said students often look for chances to spend their homeroom period back in the agriculture department, and both Summerlot and Stenftenagel often spend their free period in his classroom.

“He’s one of the best teachers,” Stenftenagel said. “He tries to relate to his students, and he takes time out of his life to help us.”

When Helming isn’t at school, you can likely find him on his grandparents’ farm in Kyana. He took it over a couple of years ago, and he and his fiancee, Veronica Voegerl, plan to build a house on the land. It can be hard balancing the farming and teacher schedule, particularly during planting and harvesting time when school is still in session. But Helming has always wanted to be a farmer, and he’s found a love for teaching. He doesn’t plan to give either up anytime soon.

“It’s a lot,” he admits. “But it’s what I want to do. I’m not one to sit still and be idle. I’m constantly going.”

And he still wants to see growth for the JHS agriculture program. At this time, the course offerings are pretty well maxed out in the schedule, but Helming still sees a lot of opportunity for growth in the FFA program, if he can only get the students to realize that FFA isn’t just for farmers. That’s his biggest battle right now, he said, and it’s an uphill one. But once it’s won, Helming said, he envisions Jasper’s FFA having at least 150 members.




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