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How hands-on ag teachers in Illinois are faring in the pandemic — and how many ag teacher positions are open?

Sierra Day, Field editor

April 7, 2021

5 Min Read
Steve Sargeant, ag teacher at Bushnell Prairie City High School teaches Western Illinois University ag education students abo
CLASSROOM: Steve Sargeant, ag teacher at Bushnell-Prairie City High School (Bushnell, Ill.), teaches Western Illinois University ag education students about electricity.Courtesy of Jana Knupp

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.

“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.

 Dean Dittmar
COORDINATOR: 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)

“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. 

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. (Courtesy of Ann Piotrowski)

“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.

About the Author(s)

Sierra Day

Field editor, Farm Progress

A 10th-generation agriculturist, Sierra Day grew up alongside the Angus cattle, corn and soybeans on her family’s operation in Cerro Gordo, Ill. Although she spent an equal amount in farm machinery as she did in the cattle barn as a child, Day developed a bigger passion for the cattle side of the things.

An active member of organizations such as 4-H, FFA and the National Junior Angus Association, she was able to show Angus cattle on the local, state and national levels while participating in contests and leadership opportunities that were presented through these programs.

As Day got older, she began to understand the importance of transitioning from a member to a mentor for other youth in the industry. Thus, her professional and career focus is centered around educating agriculture producers and youth to aid in prospering the agriculture industry.

In 2018, she received her associate degree from Lake Land College, where her time was spent as an active member in clubs such as Ag Transfer club and PAS. A December 2020 graduate of Kansas State University in Animal Sciences & Industry and Agricultural Communications & Journalism, Day was active in Block & Bridle and Agriculture Communicators of Tomorrow, while also serving as a communications student worker in the animal science department.

Day currently resides back home where she owns and operates Day Cattle Farm with her younger brother, Chayton. The duo strives to raise functional cattle that are show ring quality and a solid foundation for building anyone’s herd.

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