Ryan’s Journey into Elementary Education
How Ryan Mokandu explored his options and found his passion for teaching young learners.
Throughout his time in District 191, Ryan never shied away from getting involved. Whether it was sports, choir, band or volunteering, he had a passion for connecting, trying new things and exploring. From the beginning, he always knew he wanted to work with people. Since both of his parents are in the medical field, he thought he may follow in their footsteps, but after some science classes and an unpleasant experience dissecting a pig, he knew that was not the path for him.
Prior to his time at Burnsville High School (BHS), Ryan attended Marion W. Savage Elementary School and Eagle Ridge Middle School. He found a love for music early on, joining the band in fifth grade. It took some time to find his preferred instrument but thankfully his teacher let him try different options from the saxophone to percussion, from trumpet to tuba, before ultimately the slide of the trombone clicked for him. Through encouragement from teachers and connections with his fellow musicians, he expanded into choir and musical theater throughout middle school while also playing baseball through seventh grade.
“I found that music can help in so many ways with other subjects whether it's using math when counting rhythm and beats, or working with others,” said Ryan. “It was a really good release from the other core subjects and I was very passionate about it.”
When he started at BHS, the Pathways program was launching, giving him opportunities to try new things in the fields of fine arts or communications. Continuing in the band program, he also joined Blaze Choir, a singing group called Bro Canto, and other choirs later on. He took a few Advanced Placement classes and found that it wasn’t really his preferred path, but did earn college credits thanks to a College in the Schools class focused on public speaking. Throughout his time he had an interest in teaching and education that remained constant.
He also spent time volunteering in the community. Each year at BHS, he volunteered at least 100 hours, sometimes at a senior living center in Savage, at the public library to help with summer reading programs, or at an annual baseball tournament as an announcer. He also worked with a teacher at Hidden Valley Elementary where he got to work hands-on with kids in the classroom. These experiences serving others, especially young students, reignited that desire to work with people and called him to elementary education, at a time when the importance of good teachers became more prevalent.
“I was seeing education under attack and I got to the point where I really couldn’t see myself doing anything else,” said Ryan. “I also volunteered with a group called Young Life Capernaum and worked with a group of students with disabilities and building those relationships really reaffirmed wanting to go into the field of education and encouraged me to broaden my focus to special education.”
Graduating from BHS in 2020 and having the end of his high school career and beginning of college impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic didn’t slow Ryan down. He enrolled at the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point, initially majoring in Elementary Education, but through encouragement from his counselor, added a double major in Special Education. Classes returned to in-person during his sophomore year and when they did, he found a community of future educators who are just as passionate as he is.
“I don’t know what I’d do without my education peers,” said Ryan. “It is amazing to know that there are so many dedicated people who are focused on a career path that is under attack in so many ways. We know that the pay isn’t what it should be and that there are challenges, but we are determined to get into this field and we each have our own ‘why’ for going into it.”
Part of his coursework is hands-on experience through observation hours in classrooms where he can help teachers and students in their daily activities or provide extra tutoring support. The need for observation led to another opportunity for Ryan in 2022 while he was home from college. He reached out to leaders at Harriet Bishop Elementary about being able to observe the summer Kindergarten Methods class offered through Community Education. He was connected with Program Coordinator Allison Jordan, who instead offered a job with the district for the summer.
“I had to shuffle some things around with another job, but I was able to accept it and worked 25 hours a week,” said Ryan. “It was a lot of fun and I really loved building relationships with staff members. I knew I had to come back this summer and seeing students coming back and growing up truly reaffirmed my dedication to this career. It just brought me so much joy and I can’t imagine what else I would do.”
Armed with real-world experience, Ryan is getting ready for his senior year at UW-Stevens Point. The first half of his classes will be more traditional lecture-style with professors while the second half will see him placed in a school full time as he prepares for student teaching in the spring. He will graduate in the spring of 2024 and hopes to return to the Twin Cities to teach elementary students.
“I don’t sit still well,” said Ryan. “I am a go-getter and I have to be doing something, especially after COVID, doing nothing wasn’t working for me. I am excited to get involved and create those lasting and important connections with others!”