Farm Progress

Commentary: Attracting enough competent teachers and training them to involve the community in the local ag education program are keys.

July 18, 2017

4 Min Read
TEACH: University of Illinois student Kaity Spangler is headed toward a career in ag education. “I want my students to have the opportunity to proudly wear their FFA jackets as they learn the skills needed to succeed in the agriculture industry.”Debra Korte

By Katie Zelechowski

Harley Carlson, a junior, and Kaity Spangler, a senior, are two agriculture education students at the University of Illinois who are passionate about teaching ag. Carlson grew up in Altona, and Spangler was raised in Bushnell. Both women credit their passion for the industry to the opportunities offered in their community 4-H and FFA programs. These organizations introduced them to the diverse opportunities found in agriculture.

Carlson says, “I want to show my future students that ag is an ever-changing and updating industry that needs competent, experienced individuals running it.”  

Spangler agrees, adding, “I want my students to have the opportunity to proudly wear their FFA jackets as they learn the skills needed to succeed in the agriculture industry.” 

Both students find themselves in a segment of the industry where job openings outpace graduates. As an ag ed student myself, I see four steps to take.

1. Train more agriculture teachers. John Davin has served as Edwardsville High School’s agriculture teacher and FFA advisor for 12 years. Davin’s career working in a suburban town with a population of nearly 25,000 has presented him with both challenges and opportunities concerning agriculture education. He not only serves as the high school ag teacher, but as the Edwardsville FFA Chapter advisor as well. In the time he’s been there, the program has gone from two classes with 20 kids to seven classes with 120 students enrolled each year. Davin says understanding how to teach students lays an important foundation for individuals managing an agricultural education program.

If there are not enough licensed agricultural education teachers available, teachers of other disciplines (e.g., biology, science, industrial arts) may be hired to fill the role of an agricultural education teacher. The other option is to hire people from business and industry who want to teach but don’t have an education degree. They can receive a provisional certificate called an Educator License with Stipulations, or ELS. But challenges can arise for provisional teachers who have not been trained to specifically teach an agricultural curriculum to high school students.

Davin says hiring individuals who do not receive proper training in agriculture education can lead to a program that is not focused on the three-circle model FFA recommends: instruction, supervised agricultural experiences and FFA participation.   

Debra Korte, ag ed teaching associate at the University of Illinois, says agriculture teachers need to work both inside and outside the classroom to inspire students and become a valuable part of their community.

“Teaching is not a job; it’s a lifestyle,” Korte says.

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FLUID: U of I ag ed student Harley Carlson says, “I want to show my future students that ag is an ever-changing and updating industry that needs competent, experienced individuals running it.”  (Photo: Debra Korte)

2. Meet community needs. Perhaps your school has an ag program and a great teacher. The next question: What does your community actually need?

“We often overlook this valuable component of a quality agricultural education program and FFA chapter. Meeting the needs of the students should be the highest priority for a teacher, but recognizing the needs of the community is also essential to the design of an agricultural education program. The program should be a valuable part of every community; likewise, every community should support the teacher and the students to build a quality agricultural education program,” says Korte.

For example, if your community is lacking trained professionals in carpentry, it is important to ensure that your curriculum includes a shop class. 

Davin agrees. He echoes Korte’s belief that a strong program is born from community members pushing school districts to create strong curricula. Davin adds, “If your community is behind the program, then the school board will be behind it too.”

3. Build community support. Introducing “aggies” to “urbanites” in the community is key in bringing the importance of agriculture to the masses, says Davin.

According to Davin, sharing the ag message means exposing people of all ages to the industry, from elementary students to adults. To make a positive impact on their community, the Edwardsville FFA Chapter hosts Barnyard Day and greenhouse sales. Barnyard Day allows FFA members to teach elementary children about farm animals. Greenhouse sales put FFA members face to face with members of the community.

“The more the community sees what our program has to offer, the more support we get,” says Davin.

4. Study the numbers. This year, the number of students graduating with degrees in agricultural education in the state of Illinois is as high as it has been in more than 15 years. At the University of Illinois alone, the anticipated graduating class of 2018 will consist of 14 students, which is more than double the size of the two previous years’ classes. Korte says the steady increase holds promise for the future of high school agricultural education programs.

Spangler agrees. She says students like herself have begun addressing the need for agriculture education teachers in recent years. She anticipates that, over time, the current gap between the number of agricultural education graduates and available agriculture teaching positions will decrease.

“The future of agriculture education is bright and exciting,” she adds.

Zelechowski, Edwardsville, is a junior in agricultural education at the University of Illinois.

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