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Impact of COVID-19 on the ag classroom

Courtesy of Ann Piotrowski DuQuoin FFA member shows his pig at the Virtual Section 24 Livestock Fair
VIRTUAL SHOW: This DuQuoin (Ill.) FFA member shows his pig at the Virtual Section 24 Livestock Fair.
How hands-on ag teachers in Illinois are faring in the pandemic — and how many ag teacher positions are open?

Remote learning, hybrid teaching and virtual activities are only a few of the changes made to the usual teaching style of an educator this year. Dean Dittmar and Ann Piotrowski say that Illinois agricultural instructors choose to make the most out of the adjustments made by the COVID-19 pandemic.

 Dean DittmarCOORDINATOR: Dean Dittmar serves as the coordinator for the Facilitating Coordination in Agricultural Education unit of Illinois Agricultural Education and FFA. His role is to help boost education that is centered around agriculture. (Courtesy of Dean Dittmar)

“Agricultural education has been challenged by the pandemic, but I really feel that we will come out stronger in the end,” says Dittmar, coordinator for the Facilitating Coordination in Agricultural Education (FCAE) unit of Illinois Agricultural Education and FFA. “We are going to have more tools in our pocket to be able to secure, maintain and improve agricultural education.”

Truthfully, some instructors have struggled as school districts provide students three learning options — remote, hybrid and in-person, he says. Many teachers are doing activities for online students to maintain engagement while still planning lessons for in-person students. For hands-on agricultural education curriculum, that’s even more difficult.

Minuses, pluses of blended learning

Some school districts have transitioned to blended learning, which means one group of students attends in-person classes on Monday and Wednesday, a second group attends in-person classes on Tuesday and Thursday, and everyone attends classes virtually on Friday. Students also have the opportunity to participate in classes fully remotely. This is the situation that Ann Piotrowski faces as an agricultural instructor at DuQuoin (Ill.) High School.

“Essentially, there are three groups of students that I am trying to teach,” says Piotrowski, also the Illinois Association of Vocational Agriculture Teachers president. “Teaching a lesson several times just becomes a little redundant.”

On the flip side, the Illinois agricultural education program continues to see the positive light of alterations that COVID-19 has made for teaching and various events. Through a virtual format, there has been an increase in activity from industry-based individuals, alumni, students and instructors, Dittmar says. This way of hosting an event allows for less time and expense devoted to traveling, and it creates ease by being able to just log onto a computer.

In the classroom, Piotrowski benefits from being able to use virtual learning as a tool for keeping students on track if they have been absent for a day or two. With online learning platforms, students can already see what assignments were given before they return to school, she says. 

: Steve Sargent, ag teacher at Bushnell Prairie City High School teaches Western Illinois University ag education students about electricityCLASSROOM: Steve Sargent, ag teacher at Bushnell-Prairie City High School (Bushnell, Ill.), teaches Western Illinois University ag education students about electricity. (Courtesy of Jana Knupp)

“It is all about adapting,” Dittmar says. “Since the pandemic started, we have tried to provide more help and professional development sessions for teachers to be able to move from a standardized classroom to that online format.”

Dittmar and Piotrowski agree that agricultural students may not always enjoy the changes made to courses, contests and conferences, but this has not appeared to change enrollment across the state of Illinois.

Illinois agricultural education: The details

Another important part of ag education is the development of ag teachers and growth of the programs. Here’s how that is shaping up, according to Dittmar:

• Current job openings in Illinois. Right now, there are 30 openings in Illinois for the 2021-22 school year. Of those, 13 positions have already been filled. His hope is that the other 17 positions will be filled by the end of April.

• Opportunity for growth. A common theme for job openings within Illinois is the need for an additional teacher to grow the program. This expansion could be due to higher enrollment in high school curriculum, but these openings are also being used for other academic requirements, Dittmar says. Some school districts are hiring another ag teacher to help students develop career and technical skills through courses such as nutrition, woodworking and electricity. FCAE also wants to develop more junior high agriculture courses across the state. In turn, all of these courses become a part of the established ag program.

• New ag education graduates. Currently, 38 Illinois college students will graduate with an ag education degree in May. This number is calculated from those individuals who completed a student teaching assignment in the fall 2020 semester or are currently completing their student teaching this spring, Dittmar says. Research shows that on average, 60% of these individuals will accept a teaching position in their first year, while 40% of them will move into positions with agribusiness, ag commodity groups and agricultural organizations, or go on to graduate school.

• What about the instructors who did not receive an ag education degree? In Illinois, 22% of teachers completed a degree outside of agricultural education. That’s OK, Dittmar says. They’re able to teach thanks to the Educator’s License with Stipulations (ELS). He credits that licensing ability for helping fill ag teaching positions and preserve programs. FCAE, a project administered through the Illinois State Board of Education, helps get those with an ELS degree up to speed in education.

• Agricultural education programs are in demand. On average, 9% of the student body in an Illinois school district comes from a farm background. Without a doubt, it becomes more and more important to teach students about the agricultural industry, Dittmar says. While most students may not have the initial expertise, everyone can find a job within agriculture.

To learn more about agricultural education in Illinois, visit the Illinois Agricultural Education and FFA website.

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