Nearly 700 teachers brave the cold at annual MELT conference at Lac qui Parle Valley High School


— With heads and bodies leaning into blustery, subzero winds, over 650 educators from nine rural school districts made their way into the Lac qui Parle Valley High School on the open prairie on Monday.

They were there for the MELT, or the Minnesota River Valley Education Districts Educators Learning Together conference. The annual event is one of the state's largest teacher conferences. Teachers and school administrators join to network, learn about new strategies and ideas for the classroom, and how to manage the challenges they face in today's world.

"I've yet to have a sextortion case where one of my victims didn't try to commit suicide," Brenda Born, a supervisor agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Minneapolis, told attendees of her presentation on this crime targeting youth.

Born and special agent Krista Wigen talked about how youth, from ages 10 to 17, are targeted for what Born called "online blackmail." To be sure, what she termed "traditional" sextortion — in which sexual predators target boys and girls for explicit photos and sexual encounters — remains as persistent as ever.

"Wherever there is a kid online, there is a child predator," said Born, warning that there is no such thing as a safe online platform.

What has exploded in the past year is the number of financial sextortion cases in which victims are blackmailed into making payments to keep images they've provided from being disseminated. These are the most difficult cases for law enforcement to prosecute.

Born said something like 99.9% of the perpetrators in financial sextortion cases are operating from overseas locations, too often beyond the reach of the law. Most traditional sextortion perpetrators are domestic.

Today's students also face challenges to mental health, unlike those faced generations ago.

Karin Falness, school psychologist with the Minnesota Valley education district, said social media has both its good and bad points as she also outlined some of the concerns it brings for students. Today's youth experience less face-to-face interaction, and there is a strong correlation with higher anxiety levels with increased screen time, she explained.

Falness said today's students also remain impacted by the pandemic. It meant "lost opportunities for competence" for students, she explained.

These are but just a sampling of the dozens of workshops and issues addressed during the day.

Artificial intelligence and how to use it — and guard against cheating — was one of the topics.

New strategies for reading, innovative educational programs, including beekeeping and an on-site meat processing program at the Lac qui Parle Valley High School were among others.

Networking — just having the opportunity for teachers to visit with their colleagues from other districts — is perhaps the most appreciated aspect of the annual conference, according to Brandon Raymo, assistant director of Minnesota River Valley Education Districts.

All of the member districts are rural, he pointed out. The educators don't have the same opportunities to interact with instructors in their grade or subject areas as in urban areas.

The annual conference began 16 or 17 years ago, and has been hosted at Lac qui Parle Valley for the past 10 years. The location is roughly central for the districts that comprise the MVRED: Dawson-Boyd, Lac qui Parle, Benson, Lakeview, Minneota, Montevideo, Ortonville, Renville County West and Yellow Medicine East.

Along with networking, many appreciate the opportunity to learn what is working in other districts, said Raymo. Sessions on making history come to life, making math enjoyable for more, and how to teach the big ideas in science were offered.

So, too, were sessions focused on how teachers can connect their students to future career opportunities in the trades and professions such as health care.

This year's conference also focused on some of the new curriculum schools are adding, such as the requirements for Indigenous studies.

Without a doubt, sessions helping teachers manage the challenges of the day are always well attended. "Teachers are on the front lines," Raymo said.

The front lines are changing. Schools throughout the region are dealing with a shortage of teachers. Raymo said there have been situations where as many as seven districts can find themselves competing for applicants for a similar position, and receive only one.

Teacher demographics are changing too. In recent years, many educators have left the profession to take better-paying — and sometimes less stressful — positions outside of education, Raymo said. A graph of the ages of teachers in the MRVED shows higher numbers on the entry-level and later years of the career as the middle ranks shrink due to the exodus.

All of which speaks to the importance of this mid-winter opportunity for educators to learn and recharge, never mind the blustery weather, he noted.