By now you have probably heard of Krista Pontius, the ag education teacher from Pennsylvania who won “Live’s Top Teacher Search.” Being on national TV has to be a cool experience. And the fact that this happened to an agriculture teacher is even cooler.
Krista was lauded for her work inside and out of the classroom, and was chosen over three other finalists who were all likely well-deserving of the award.
She found out she was nominated for the award — her mother and mother-in-law nominated her for it — after she got a random phone call in school from producers of the “Live With Kelly and Ryan” show. “They started asking me these questions, and that’s how I found out I was nominated,” Krista says. "To say I was surprised would be an underestimate.”
Krista, who teaches ag at Greenwood Middle/High School in Millerstown, Pa., made it to the top four finalists and appeared on the show May 3 live from her classroom. Then, on May 7 her husband texted her with the good news: She won the award.
After her husband texted her, the fire alarm in the school started going off. It was raining outside, and Krista wasn’t thrilled the school was performing a fire drill.
“I said, ‘Who would have a fire drill when it’s raining?'” she laughs.
But it wasn’t a fire drill. All 700 students and staff were waiting for her, drum line in tow. Her ag students — they call her KP — started cheering “KP, KP,” and she did something that she normally only sings in private, or only to her FFA students.
“I sang ‘Grundy County Auction,’” she laughs. “I do sing it all the time, but in the privacy of our bus.”
For Krista, teaching ag is a lot more than showing students how a plant grows or how a cow gives birth.
"It's kind of two-fold," she says. "I want them to know where their food comes from. The kids I look at everyday will, more importantly, be consumers. I want them to be intelligent consumers, and I want them to become cheerleaders for American farmers. But secondly, I want them to know the importance of being a community servant in our FFA chapter.”
Krista's award was great timing. National Teacher Day was May 4.
Teachers hold a special place in my heart. My sister-in-law is a teacher, my neighbors are teachers, and I have lots of friends who are teachers. It’s a great job that comes with great responsibility, and in this way, teachers and farmers are alike.
You know that farmers not only have to know how to plant and harvest crops, but they also have to be good businesspeople, know something about science, be good at mechanical things and, of course, know something about the weather.
Teachers not only have to be good at teaching a subject, but they also have to be good at inspiring others, counseling others and, in some cases, be almost like a parental figure. It’s a huge responsibility.
Krista is both — a farmer and a teacher. She’s co-owner of Cocolamus Farms in Millerstown, Pa., an 85-head dairy that’s been in her husband’s family for nearly 200 years. The couple tend 220 acres.
Every day, after school, she helps with afternoon milking and makes decisions about the farm with her husband, Jason.
I saw the video made of Krista that was prerecorded for the “Live With Kelly and Ryan” show. Her students called her an awesome teacher for making class “so much fun.” One student even said that KP inspired her to become a teacher.
This is the kind of impact a teacher can have, to inspire children to be better in their lives and to achieve more than they feel they can achieve. But just like farmers, they’re underappreciated.
Think about it, the average starting salary for an ag teacher in 2020 was only $41,762, according to the National Association of Agricultural Educators’ Teacher Supply and Demand Overview for 2020. That comes out to an hourly wage of about $20 an hour.
There are many jobs either right out of college, or even high school, that likely pay much more than an agricultural teacher, but do they come with the awesome responsibility the job carries? Very few do.
Ag teachers are needed. More than 50 ag teacher positions went unfilled across the country in 2020. That number’s improved over the years, and the retention rate for agricultural teachers, at 96%, is historically high, according to the report. But still, 50 open positions mean lots more students lost out on a potentially good teacher.
Krista normally teaches 200 students a year, but this year, largely because of the pandemic, she’s teaching 121 students with a teaching partner, Michael Clark. The pandemic was stressful for her. Last year, when schools were shut down, she not only had to pivot to remote teaching, but she and her husband also had to dump milk — like many other farmers had to do.
Yet with all that pressure, she remains the eternal optimist. “The dairy business, it has been a lot worse, but it's gotten better. I’m the eternal optimist. It feels a whole lot better than one year ago,” she says.
Krista won a $10,000 cash prize for herself and $10,000 for her school. She has no idea what she’ll do with her own money, but — surprise, surprise — she’s hinting that it’ll probably go to buy something for the farm.
The school award she has no control over, but if it was up to her, she would dole it out evenly among the teachers and staff of her school.
“We are very tight, we have a really good system at Greenwood, we're always working together," she says. “I don't think this is about me at all. I think it's about our school.”
Congrats to Krista Pontius, and congrats to all the ag teachers out there. Hopefully her award will put a brighter light on the important work they do. Do you remember a teacher who’s inspired you? Send a comment to [email protected].