Mid-April, leaders in Illinois agriculture education met in Springfield to discuss an epidemic plaguing the nation. We don’t have ag teachers. In fact, according to the National Teach Ag Campaign our country is operating at an annual deficit of 400 ag teachers.
With current conversation focusing so much on farms and food, agriculture education and FFA have been thrust to the fore-front as the answer to, “Who is the future of our food?” In a recent article by The Associated Press, secondary ag programs are cropping up, most often in urban areas, furthering what so many of us have been saying all along. Agriculture is so much more than cows, sows and plows; it is science, software and vision.
If I can overstate the obvious, just as society needs more healthcare professionals, software masters and skilled manufacturers, we need people who understand the yin and yang of growing food, fuel, fiber and feed while decreasing our footprint on the planet.
More importantly, we need people to teach the future of agriculture. The National Teach Ag Campaign reported 7,737 ag programs exist in U.S. schools. Twenty-two of those programs closed last year for lack of a teacher; 146 are coordinated by provisional teachers (i.e. no certification in the area of instruction).
What makes an ag teacher different from a math, English or P.E. teacher?
I’ve written a lot about ag education and FFA, and its role in my life; so here’s a summary: Agriculture education presents a very unique learning experience for students. It incorporates the traditional in-class instruction with less traditional real world applications through supervised agriculture experiences (i.e. record books), which are brought together through FFA activities in leadership, community service and career exploration. The tie that binds this three-circle educational model together is a teacher.
So where are the ag teachers? Of the 679 collegiate students who graduated with agriculture education degrees last year, 473 pursued teaching as a career (from National Teach Ag Campaign). Why is this particular profession disappearing when society is screaming for agriculture education and engagement? Instead of offering even a complex answer, this question just leads to more questions.
Is it the extra demand of FFA activities? Most all ag teachers operate on an extended contract, averaging 35 extra days. (We all know most teachers work beyond their contract, even an extended one.) FFA activities are after school, before school, during school, weekends and holidays. That doesn’t begin to cover the preparation to participate in these career development events or leadership conferences.
Is it the constantly changing education standards? During this April meeting I attended – surrounded by ag teachers and teachers who taught ag teachers – I marveled as folks described the cobweb government has spun to regulate, certify and assess teachers. It reminded me a bit of what farmers face, and jotted in my notes: “We can’t legislate quality.”
Rules & regs can’t force a person to be passionate and committed to a job. Someone who is really good at following the rules will be really good at navigating the increasing layers of paperwork required to be a teacher and remain a teacher. Completed paperwork does not a good teacher make.
Is the issue funding for the program, salary, or dissatisfaction? Is it burn-out?
Or do we need to drastically shift our expectations?
My high school ag teacher is one of the legends of Illinois ag education. He built a chapter that for many years was nationally recognized in community service projects. He has devoted his adult life to his chapter and program. He is one of the few still teaching from the era when the vocational education profession was dominated by men.
Today, the classroom is changing. You’ll find more and more female teachers in the shop instructing welding, woodworking, and auto mechanics. The National FFA Organization addresses the role of women as agriculture education teachers here. From the article:
Women agriculture educators also face another challenge—balancing a career with raising a family. “You will never see a man, eight months pregnant on the job,” quips [Dr. Billye] Foster, [associate professor of agricultural education at the University of Arizona]. “Women just have a different row to hoe—different responsibilities and concerns than their male counterparts have to deal with.”
I would add that for many young male teachers, family is priority, too. Missing a tee-ball game or a dance recital is not an option anymore. Nor should it be, in my opinion. Balancing a life separate from a career is an issue for women and men.
Changing the expectations we have for ag teachers does not mean we lower the standards. The success of a school’s agriculture program is found in the strength of its students, support from parents and alumni, but by far in the ability of the teacher to juggle a classroom that stretches beyond the school and into his/her personal life.
Seniors in high school are collecting college acceptance letters, writing scholarship essays and gathering that precious diploma before stepping into their next life chapter. I do hope many will chose agriculture education, stick with it and in doing so, answer the tough questions behind this one: “Where have all the teachers gone?”