Teacher gives, gets support

STREATOR, Ill. — The welcome mat that his fellow faculty rolled out for him is the same one that Riley Hintzsche has ready for his students in the Streator High School ag program.

“I remember my first week at Streator,” Hintzsche said. “I sent a staff email. I said I’m new, this is who I am, I don’t know everything I need for my classroom, but I know I need these things. Does anybody have any of this in their classrooms that I could borrow?”

The response he received was the assurance he needed.

“There was a group of four or five individuals who showed up the next day with bags full of stuff and they said here, this is for you, for your classroom. I said you just bought this. They said yes, we bought this for you and we wish you the best and we’re happy you’re here. I will never forget that and I will never forget who did it,” Hintzsche said.

That support continued. On April 9, 2015, a tornado, the Rochelle-Fairdale tornado, swept across northern Illinois, demolishing Hintzsche’s parents’ home and several farm buildings.

Hintzsche’s first FFA banquet was just a week away when the tornado hit.

“I was at the farm and I had email after email from people at the school. They said what do you need from us? I had people from my school who were willing to do whatever they could to support me. That has probably been the biggest thing that has made me love and appreciate my school,” he said.

The welcoming and supportive atmosphere is one that Hintzsche, in turn, extends to his students.

“It created the environment that kids in my room can be whoever they want to be, because of the fact that I am able to do that. We have created the environment where people who walk through our doors know who they are is fine and that they will be supported,” he said.

Hintzsche, newly graduated from Western Illinois University, admits he took his first teaching job uncertain of how, or if, he would be accepted, as a member of the LGBTQ community.

“I was a brand new teacher. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. I was really struggling with my sexual identity, that was a huge thing for me. It was very hard for me to understand why I wanted to be in a town that I was unsure I needed to be in. I grew up in a small town. I grew up in a place that wasn’t necessarily supportive of who I was,” he said.

Hintzsche was raised in ag education. He attended Rochelle High School where his father, John, taught agriculture for over 40 years.

He credits his father with teaching him not only agriculture, but pushing him to achieve more than he himself believed he could.

“I was active in FFA in high school and I thank my dad for a lot of that. My dad pushed me more than I wanted to push myself. I can remember my dad telling me to do something I didn’t want to do, but that I should have done and it was going to be good for me. So, I did it and today, I thank him for that,” Hintzsche said.

His focus, first and foremost, is his job.

“At the end of the day, I have a job to do. That was the thing that I told myself when I came to Streator — I am here for a job. Until I have proven what I can do, I just need to be here to do my job,” Hintzsche said.

In October 2021, Hintzsche was named a National Association of Agricultural Educators Teach Ag Champion.

In 2020, Streator High School FFA chapter was selected as the National FFA 2020 Premier Chapter: Strengthening Agriculture for the Becoming Semi Aware traffic education program.

That program was developed by Hintzsche and his students after an alumni had a semi stolen and wrecked just outside of Streator.

Hintzsche sat down with his students and they came up with a program where students took turns sitting in the driver’s seat of a semi to gain perspective of what a truck driver can and cannot see and how long it takes for a semi to stop, when loaded.

“It was really exciting because Becoming Semi Aware was homemade, home produced and something the kids helped develop. It was a very exciting day for us when the award was announced,” Hintzsche said.

Other programs include Think OINK, where students learn about swine production and reproduction via a hands-on experience of having a sow farrow in the ag department greenhouse, and Edible Acre, where students plant, care for and harvest produce that is donated to local charities.

When he’s faced with what he says is one of the biggest frustrations — students who fail to prepare for events or activities or class assignments — Hintzsche again falls back on the lessons his father taught him.

“When I work with students to get them ready for something and they don’t meet me where I’m at and help prepare themselves, that is a very big frustration. My dad is my biggest influence in ag ed and he would always say this is going to make you better. Even though I would drag my feet or get mad and say I’m going to bed, he would continue to work on something. So, I think of the resilience and the perseverance that my father had with me and that I need to have with my students,” Hintzsche said.

One of the other parts of the job can be the best and worst aspects of it.

“Things are never boring and they change all the time. It’s always about finding that next area where you and your kids can achieve greatness,” he said.

Hintzsche maintains close connections to home and his family. He enjoys traveling in his downtime and tries to be on a plane going to visit friends or family every three months. He and his mother, Lauren, take a trip together every six months or so.

But no matter where he goes, Hintzsche returns home to Streator and to the school and the people who made him feel as welcome as he now tries to do for everyone who walks into his classroom.

“Streator High School has been the change for me. It really has. Anything that I want to be at Streator High School, people are willing to support and that is what I love and appreciate about my school,” he said.