To Tell You the Truth with Nebraska Educators: Auburn's Jerica German and Pawnee City's Hadley Sejkora and Aeden Gyhra

To Tell You the Truth with Nebraska Educators: Auburn's Jerica German and Pawnee City's Hadley Sejkora and Aeden Gyhra

By Tyler Dahlgren


There are over 24,000 public school teachers in the state of Nebraska.

They’re the gatekeepers. The curators of hopes and dreams. Together, they light the fire and keep it burning. And Judy Blume was right, their fingerprints never fade from the lives they touch.

They’re teachers, and they’re as critical to the future of this state as anybody. 

We’re in the business of telling stories. Stories that exemplify all the wonderful things that collectively make Nebraska’s public schools some of the very best in the nation. Remember when I referred to teachers as gatekeepers? Well, they’re not just gatekeepers for the future. They’re gatekeepers for the very stories we exist to tell.

One-hundred percent of the time, they’re giddy to share these stories. They gush about their students and all of their successes. They rave about their schools and their communities, but very rarely are they all-that-excited to talk about themselves.

That’s just the nature of a teacher. They don’t wake up every morning and do what they do to attain any fanfare or to sneak their way into the spotlight. It’s an admirable trait, but for a guy who makes a living bragging about Nebraska's public schools, that humility can, at times, be an (honorable) hurdle to clear.

To get to the point, teachers are awesome. I suppose that’s a subjective statement, but I have seven years on the storytelling trail and thousands of interviews logged to support it.

There’s more than 24,000 of them, each with a story of their own. 

In NPSA’s new “To Tell You the Truth” series, we’re shifting the spotlight onto Nebraska’s teachers, whether they like it or not. 

Game on.

Our journey begins on the lively campus of Peru State College, where three young teachers have taken a break from ESU 4’s Engaging Educators conference and found a quiet corner in the student center’s dining hall.

The trio of Jerica German (2nd-grade at Calvert Elementary in Auburn), Aeden Gyhra (4th-grade at Pawnee City) and Hadley Sejkora (5th-grade at Pawnee City) have a combined 10 years on the job. Sejkora is the elder statesman of the group, with eight years under his belt. Gyhra is rounding out Year Two, while German just started her career in January.

Sejkora’s also the only of the three who comes from a long line of teachers. His mom is a teacher, as is just about everybody on her side of the family. His dad and most of the lineage on that side were farmers. Sejkora grew up enjoying the best of both worlds, and was never pulled in either direction.

“I enjoyed school the whole way through,” he said. “When I was younger, just being with my friends was what I liked most about school. We lived on a farm, so if I wasn’t at school, I didn’t really get to see anybody. In high school, it was kind of the same. I was like, ‘Well, you get to go and learn and you get to be with friends.’ I don’t know what else you could ask for. Life was good.”

Along the way, Sejkora took notice of the impact his mom and his aunts and uncles were making on so many young lives around him. He pictured himself in their shoes, and liked what he saw.

“Then you start working with kids, and you see how you can make that same kind of impact, and you think, ‘I think I could be pretty good at that as well,’” said Sejkora, who graduated from Midland University before returning home to Pawnee City to begin his teaching career.

It was right before the pandemic when German landed a practicum in a Norris kindergarten class. She was a senior set to graduate in May, and, much like with everything during that time, there was some uncertainty around her plans for the future.

And then she met the kids, and that uncertainty faded. It only took a couple hours with those kindergarteners for German to realize she’d found her calling.

“I just fell in love with the students and seeing them improve at something every day, whether it was zipping up their coat for the first time or trying to get their shoes tight right or getting a capital A written just right,” the recent Peru State graduate recalled. “It’s just seeing those little independent successes every day that make you want to keep going.”

Gyhra sees teaching as one of the most versatile occupations there is. Like Sejkora, she too grew up in Pawnee City and returned to teach at her alma mater after graduating from UNL. And, like Sejkora, she’s full of thought-provoking insight.

“This profession is unique in the sense of when you’re growing up, you’re surrounded by teachers,” Gyhra said. “And then if you choose to go to college and major in education, you’re still in school meeting and learning from teachers, up until the point where you become one yourself. So even though I don’t come from a long line of teachers, and I didn’t have the insider information, I still had plenty of exposure to what it’s like to be a teacher. Seeing the difference they can make and how much variety there is to the job is really cool. It’s like you’re doing a million things even though it’s just one job description.”

That’s perhaps the biggest misconception about teachers that Gyhra often encounters. Teaching is complex. It’s not babysitting. It’s a million other things, but it’s definitely not that. Those who know, do. And those that understand, teach. Aristotle himself said that, and he knew some things.

“You don’t realize how much you are actually impacting someone until you are the one spending all day with them and making pivotal decisions that will shape how they think of things,” Gyhra said. “It’s kind of high stakes, really. I don’t know if most people realize just how important the work is.”

Sejkora points out that teaching is far from mundane. It’s easy for people to look at a math teacher and see subject matter that never changes. You’re teaching the same fractions every year, right? How hard can that be?

“I guess there’s elements of it that do get easier as you become more experienced, but the kids are different every year, so it’s completely different every year, which makes it challenging,” Sejkora said. “You would think it’s like, ‘Well, I did this for five years, so year six should be a breeze,’ but once you get a new group of kids in your room, there’s always new challenges because they’re all different. In some ways they’re the same, but they all have unique needs.”

German was student teaching when a full-time teacher left and a full-time position opened up. So began her career. She walked in thinking one classroom management skill would be good for the semester, but quickly found that not to be the case. To keep students on their toes, teachers need to be on their toes. It’s a fast-paced environment, she’s learned.

“My biggest challenge was just getting it all figured out,” German said. “It was getting the hang of grading, planning for your day, and then teaching that day. But it doesn’t stop there. You go home and you’re still thinking about the kids. We don’t ever really turn it off. We’re always thinking about them, so planning time for ourselves can be a challenge.”

That’s where a teacher’s network comes in handy. Teaching can be a somewhat daunting profession, especially for newbies, but it’s also a profession rich with collegiality and built-in support. ESU 4’s Engaging Educators is a perfect example of the professional development and networking opportunities that are forged for teachers across the state.

These events are valuable to all educators, but they’re especially crucial for teachers from small districts like Pawnee City, where Sejkora and Gyhra are the only ones instructing their respective grades. 

“Being so young and new to everything, I bug people all the time because I don’t think I could survive without their guidance and opinions,” said Gyhra. “The teachers around me help me feel less crazy a lot of the time. As you’re having all of these epiphanies in your first two years of how hard this job actually is, it helps a lot to talk to somebody who’s been doing it for awhile and who’s not shocked by what you’re experiencing. It’s comforting in a way. I don’t think in the beginning you realize you’re going to have that much help, and you might not know that you’re going to need that help either.”

German approached her interview with Calvert Elementary in Auburn with that in mind.

“I took it as an interview for them as much as it was for me, just because if I didn’t feel like a network was going to be there for me or I wasn’t going to be heard, that’s probably not the place you want to be,” she explained. “At Calvert, I have two mentors that are great. They come in, they check on me. I can go to any teacher and they’ll be there to offer support and advice. Everyone just comes together to make it an environment you want to teach in, and I think it’s probably like that at a lot of places across the state.”

That first year can be intimidating, the three agree, but eventually there comes a realization that serves as a paradigm shift.

“There’s this notion when you first start out of ‘I have to look confident, I have to feel confident, and I have to get this right, otherwise the administration is going to (intervene),’” said Sejkora. “It’s like, ‘If I’m not doing a good job, then how am I going to keep it?’ But as you gain experience and get older you realize that they’re not there to point out everything you’re doing wrong. They’re there to help. The first time someone comes in and observes your class and evaluates you, it can be a little unnerving, but you soon realize that they’re there to help. That’s what the administration is there for as well. If you’ve got good ones, they’re just there to help.”

Don’t be scared of the feedback, German would advise other rookie teachers. Instead, revel in the feedback.

“Just go in there confident,” she said.

Gyhra describes herself as a nervous person in general. She’s familiar with those first-year jitters, but promises they’re quick to vanish.

“Just push yourself to do it the first few times,” Gyhra would tell new teachers. “We probably are all the same in the beginning. I don’t get nervous in front of kids or trying anything new in front of them anymore because I’ve just done it so many times. You get used to it.”

In other occupations, Sejkora explained, you might have complete control over a situation and its outcomes. As a teacher, you just have to realize that there are going to be good days and there are going to be bad days. Your job, he continued, is to be constant.

“If you’re passionate about it, you’ll find a way to make it work,” Sejkora said. “It’s not always easy, but keep plugging away and you’ll get the hang of it.”

The cafeteria is filling up with Peru State students, and 30 minutes into our discussion I come to the realization that I’ve yet to ask the trio about the thing that should have started this conversation. 

Finally, I let it rip.

Tell me about the students you get to serve and how rewarding it is to give them the best experience you can possibly give them.

At once, their eyes light up. For the next five minutes, I just sit back and take it in.

“For me, it’s the little things throughout the day that just make me smile or laugh,” said German. “I am just awed by their little comments and little successes. I cherish those little moments throughout the day.”

Teaching is a blast, Gyhra said. That fact should not and cannot be excluded from this discussion. 

“It’s more fun than you realize,” she said. “We laugh a lot. They make fun of my obsession with mac and cheese a lot. They learn little things about you and they hold onto those things. You don’t realize how much you mean to them until they’re bringing up things you said two months ago and it’s like, ‘Oh, wow. You really are listening to me.’”

On a more serious note, Gyhra said she was drawn back to Pawnee City to help younger generations understand their importance and to open their eyes to everything that’s out there for them in this world.

“You just want to be that person who helps them realize the world is open to them, even if they don’t see it that way right now,” Gyhra said. “Being a good person, that is so important. You can go off and do what you want to do. You’re not just stuck to whatever you think you’re stuck to right now, whatever you think you’re going to do with your life. Because with some kids you can tell, maybe not necessarily in the fourth-grade, but you can tell they’ll eventually feel like they don’t have a ton of options, but that’s not true. Kids matter everywhere. Kids in a small town nobody’s heard of, they matter. I like to be the person who helps show them that.”

Educators are in it for the kids. That sounds cliche, but a truer sentiment has never been spoken. 

“I don’t teach fifth-grade because I enjoy fractions or the main idea of a story,” said Sejkora. “You’re not there for the content. You’re there for the kids. Sometimes, it’s tough, because you don’t always get to see the kind of impact you’ve made on a kid. You see some growth from the beginning of the year to the end, but for what you really hope for in the future, you sometimes never know.”

Sometimes, however, you do. Sejkora coaches high school basketball, where he gets to cross paths again with his former students. Things come full circle, and in there lives the reward. The magic of teaching.

“On the days where it’s tough, that reminds you that it’s all worth it,” Sejkora said. “You see them start going off to college or making other decisions after school. You see the people they become, and you think about what they were like in fifth-grade and how they’ve changed, and you think to yourself, ‘Okay, this is something I need to keep doing.’”

They said it!

“As I get older, I find myself teaching the kids and trying to help in ways that are outside of the actual curriculum. You realize that their character, who they are as people, is going to be more important. If I can help them in that way, it’ll have more of an impact than if I can help them with long division. So I’ve found myself, not getting away from the curriculum at all, but being more intentional and taking the time to focus on those things.”-Sejkora

“Fifth-graders are hilarious, so they’ll definitely make you laugh, and that’s good.”-Sejkora

“I love seeing when a kid who is easily frustrated or says they hate a subject pushes through something they didn’t want to do at first. That makes my day a great one every single time. If I see that in a lesson, whether they fully learn the concept or not, and they’re trying hard at something they didn’t want to do, that’s a success. That’s a good lesson.”-Gyhra

“Kids now have different things coming at them than we did. Different circumstances. But then there’s times where something will happen and it will trigger a core memory. They’ll say something or do something and it’s like a nostalgic ‘Wait, I remember that.’”-Gyhra

“I just really enjoy the community. That’s what makes Auburn Public Schools special. Everybody knows each other. It’s not terribly small, but not big by any means. It just feels like home.”-German

“The tradition of Pawnee makes it a special place. Since Hadley and I both went there, we’re doing a lot of things with kids that we got to experience, and that is just the coolest feeling. It does feel like a second home a little bit. That’s just special.”-Gyhra

Q: Favorite School Lunch?

German: I bring my own lunch every day.

Sejkora: She’s young. She doesn’t know yet. You have to eat any meal that someone else will make for you. You jump at that. My favorite one? Man, I like them all. We have Chinese food that is fantastic, but I might go with the Walking Taco if they have the good Doritos in it.

Gyhra: Mine’s easy. We used to have soup on Thursdays, and the lady who used to do lunches would make homemade cinnamon rolls to go along with it. So good.

Q: What can we find you doing during summer break?

German: I really enjoy spending time with my family and going to all the lakes around here.

Sejkora: June’s a pretty busy month with high school basketball. Outside of that, I do try to get away and recharge a little bit. I grew up on a farm, so I’m still close to that. So that’s what I’m doing, working with the cows and then I go and work with the kids.

Gyhra: I work my second job in the summer and, outside of that, I would say a whole lot of doing nothing. A lot of lounging around.

Q: Favorite TV show or movie that’s set around a school?

Gyhra: Abbott Elementary

Sejkora: Remember the Titans

German: The Blind Side

Q: Favorite fictional teacher?

German and Gyhra: Mrs. Fritz!

Sejkora: Who's Mrs. Fritz?

German: You know, Magic Schoolbus, all aboard!

Gyhra: Maybe the sea turtle from Finding Nemo. He was a good one.