Old door, new lessons

-Messenger photo by Hans Madsen
Eagle Grove English teacher Sherry Leksell poses with some of the books she'll be using next year in class that reflect the diversity of the community.

Editor’s note: This story first appeared in The Messenger’s annual Hometown Pride publication on June 24, 2022, featuring people and organizations from Fort Dodge and the surrounding area who are making a difference in their communities.

EAGLE GROVE — The sturdy oak door in Sherry Leksell’s English room, the one with the ancient panes of glass that let her look out into the hallway, is probably original to the Eagle Grove High School’s construction.

They don’t make oak doors like that any more.

They don’t make too many teachers like the one on the classroom side of the door, either — a dedicated teacher who loves her students, spends hours making sure they learn and even teaches them something you might not always learn in English class — how to shake hands.

-Messenger photo by Hans Madsen
Eagle Grove High School English teacher Sherry Leksell jokes around with Advanced English student Noah Rethman. Among many other things, Rethman learned interviewing skills in her class.

“I’m a second career teacher,” Leksell said. “Eight years ago, they closed the Northeast Hamilton middle school and high school, so I came here.”

She teaches sophomore, junior and senior English, with her senior class being dual credit with Iowa Central Community College.

Her English classes reach out to all her students.

“A lot of times in English you teach old, dead white guys,” she said. “This year I created a multicultural unit. I want the faces in our hallways to see their faces in the stories we read; that was very important to me. If we’re reading contemporary fiction, they’re more engaged.”

Another unit helps students learn how to get a job.

The students start with an application, then move on to write a resume. The unit also taught them how to handle the next part, the job interview.

“They learn how to shake a hand, how to tie a tie and practice non-verbal communication,” she said.

She enlisted members of the community to help conduct interviews. “I go out into the community and find adults that do the jobs they want to do,” she said. “Then we have an interview in front of the whole class and on film. They get the feeling, that real-life, high pressure.”

Some of this year’s adults included a tattoo artist, a coach and a construction superintendent.

“The construction guy had them measure a table with a tape during the interview,” she said.

No, the tattoo artist didn’t have the applicant tattoo anyone.

One student, who was interested in the auto industry, requested Elon Musk.

“I told him I don’t know if I can pull an Elon Musk,” she said. “I did find him a Formula I car designer though. I try to break down the walls in a way where I can bring in the real world.”

Noah Rethman, 17, took her Advanced English class. His career goal is to become a pastry chef.

At the conclusion of the course, he went through a mock interview with Chef Michael Hurst, the director of the Iowa Central Community College Culinary Arts program.

“All the things we studied,” Rethman said, “it really helped with my confidence.”

He ended up using his newly found skills in the real world.

“I applied for a job at Rails,” he said. “I used those skills; I was able to get the job.”

Leksell describes herself as “tough but fair.”

“I’m old school,” she said. “I don’t allow cussing or cell phones in my room.”

She also runs several shifts of study table time for her students after school. It keeps her in the building working with students until around 8 p.m.

“My husband on the first day of school kissed me and said, ‘I’ll see you in May.'” she said. “I wanted to be the teacher I wanted. I work 80 hours a week. I don’t resent it; I love it.”

She’s ready with some advice for anyone thinking of teaching or just starting out in the field.

“Have a sense of humor, be patient with them, and be yourself. Be consistent and have faith,” she said. “We teach in times that are difficult.”

She learns from the students, too. They have a major influence on her reading choices. She watches what the students are reading and then joins them.

“I’ll read their books,” she said. “I just keep buying the books they read in class.”

She also tries to bring the books to life, particularly for those students who don’t translate words on a page into visual images in their imagination.

“I read from ‘(Of) Mice and Men’ out loud,” she said. “I do a really good Lennie.”

She’s not about to hang it up anytime soon, either.

“I’m going to be that teacher that comes in here with their walker,” she said.


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