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It takes a village - Adrian teacher shaped by those around him

Adrian speech coach Jason Olson (left) works with sophomore Dustin John at the high school in Adrian. (Brian Korthals/Daily Globe)

ADRIAN — Adrian High School Social Studies teacher Jason Olson likely wouldn’t be where he is today without the influences of individuals along his life’s journey.

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For starters, he wanted to be an attorney from the time he was old enough to think about a career.

“I like to talk, and lawyers make lots of money,” he said with a laugh.

As an only child growing up in Dassel, and the first in his family to go to college, Olson said it was a first-grade student who changed his life path during senior year in high school.

“I was a teacher’s assistant, and I was moved to the first grade because this student was gifted,” Olson recalled.

The young student already knew addition — and even some multiplication — and was getting bored in the classroom. The teacher needed someone to work one-on-one with the student for an hour a day, and Olson was selected.

“This turned out to be one of the most enriching experiences I could have had,” he said in retrospect. “It changed totally where I wanted to go.”

With a love of history, Olson began thinking about a career in teaching. At the same time, however, he admitted, “I thought maybe I could deal with one elementary aged kid — I didn’t know if I could deal with 20 or 25 at the same time.”

When Olson graduated from Dassel-Cokato High School, he went on to Southwest State University at Marshall, where he earned a degree in history. Through extra classes, he picked up a social studies licensure. Now, he’s pursuing a master’s degree in history from the University of Nebraska-Kearney while being a full-time teacher, co-speech co-coach and one-act play director at Adrian.

“What it really comes down to … that kid in first grade, he had a role in the direction my life would take. He probably never even knew that. The teacher who selected me to help that first-grader had a role in the direction my life would take,” Olson said. “Really, I think in teaching, that’s got to be the goal. If you can have a positive role in the direction that some kid’s life takes, you’re basically paying it forward just like that kid and that teacher did for me.”

Olson began teaching at Adrian in the fall of 2002 and said, “I never thought I’d be here a second year.”

He credits fellow staff and the community for giving him the opportunity and getting him involved in the school district. He teaches 9-12 social studies, in addition to college-level psychology, sociology and government through Adrian’s College Now program developed by Southwest State University.

In his first year in Adrian, Olson became the assistant speech coach, moving up to co-head coach in 2009 with AHS English and journalism teacher Joyce McCarthy. The duo has also paired up as co-directors for the one-act plays.

“Joyce McCarthy is one of those people who has positively impacted the direction of my life,” Olson said. “She got me involved in plays, which then led to one-act. She was more than willing to allow me to help her with speech.

“I think it would be very different if we didn’t have each other to rely on,” he added.

While in high school, Olson was active in speech, and he participated in a couple of plays in college.

“I was not as good at (speech) as most of my students are here. Most of my students here, to be honest, put more effort into it,” Olson said with a laugh. “I was just a natural talker. I would get some placings, but I probably could have done better.”

Olson said he and McCarthy make a good team leading the Adrian speech program. They work off of each other’s strengths, especially when it comes to the different categories in a speech contest. Today, Olson serves as president-elect of the Minnesota Speech Coaches Association and will become its president at the end of next year. He also serves on the Region 3A committee for speech and one-act, does speech judging and is a speech coach at Gustavus-Adolphus College in St. Peter during its week-long summer speech institute. 

Leading extracurricular programs at AHS allows Olson the opportunity to see growth in his students outside the classroom setting.

“Some of the people I had … were scared to death to say even two words,” he said. “Toward the end, they’re being some of the loudest people you can imagine.

“At times, the students can be very entertaining,” he added.

Olson recalled one student, Jarod Boltjes, who went from being one of the “quietest, shyest kids ever” to now performing around the world with professional ballet touring groups.

“When you look back at that, you think, ‘Boy, that growth was wonderful — I was able to be a part of that,’” he said.

One of the most rewarding aspects of being a teacher is seeing students grow into adults — and also seeing them come back for a visit.

“The first couple of years, you see them a bit more, and then they have to go out and get a real job and have their own family, and you don’t see them as much,” Olson reflected.

From time to time, he gets to work with alumni — such as when Adrian hosted a speech tournament earlier this month and some former students came back to help; or when AHS alumni filled roles in the community theater under Olson’s direction.

Twice now, Olson has directed the summer theater program at Worthington’s Memorial Auditorium, including “Beauty and the Beast” in 2011 and “Shrek” in 2013. Previously, he directed a summer theater production in Adrian for six years, including “A Christmas Carol,” which led to a change in Adrian’s annual summer festival, now known as Christmas in July.

Despite his behind-the-scenes role as director, Olson does manage to be on stage at least once per year. For the past seven seasons, he’s played a role in the St. Kilian Misfits annual spring production.

Olson also helped build the one-act program at AHS with former AHS band director Jon Loy, now band director at Worthington High School. The idea was Loy’s, but Olson was willing to give it a try.

“At that point, I knew next to nothing about the directing side of things,” Olson said. “Jon kind of swooped in and took over. At the time, I was maybe a little frustrated that he did, but I actually learned an extreme amount from him as a result. I don’t know that I would have gotten through, especially that first one-act, without him. From the theater side of things, he was pretty important.”

Building a one-act program from the ground up and being able to run with other ideas is one of the things Olson finds most appealing about teaching in Adrian.

“The Adrian school district has been very willing to let me try new things,” he said. “With the summer musical, Jon Loy and I talked about it in April or May, and by June it was happening.

“I don’t know, in a lot of school districts, if you’d get as much willingness to try things that are new. Being around other people who are willing to try new things is a good thing.”

That said, Olson is content where he’s at. School and extracurricular work keep him busy, but he has his summers, and the fall and late spring aren’t quite so hectic.

“Trying to get home once in a while to Dassel — I’m not terribly successful at that, as my mother would probably tell you,” Olson said. “You find time to get it done.”

When he’s not in the classroom, he enjoys watching classic movies and television shows and likes to golf a little during the summer.

“The golf ball can go in any direction — I’m not that good,” he admitted with a laugh.

Last summer, Olson earned an all-expenses paid trip to California to take part in the Age of Reagan Institute at the Reagan Presidential Library. The institute offers participants an opportunity to explore how they can use the documents of that time to enrich the American history classroom.

Olson has applied to some institutes again this summer and still awaits word on a potential opportunity. The programs allow Olson to explore his love of history and bring it back to share with his students. If his teaching impacts just one person, it’s worth it.

“When I think of a sense of community, it’s kind of strange to think … of one person,” Olson said. “To do what I’ve done has taken a community of people to help me. A lot of times we don’t even know that we’re helping people when we really are.

“I think maybe too often we focus on one individual, and we don’t necessarily think about all of the other people who have led to that one person being able to do some of those things,” he added.

Daily Globe Reporter Julie Buntjer may be reached at 376-7330.

Julie Buntjer

Julie Buntjer joined the Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at

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