Ray Nash of Biggersville, Miss., calls them “a special breed.”
Erica Whitmore of Odessa, Wash., calls them “a mentor, a teacher, a friend.”
And Ken Couture of Killingley, Conn., can’t imagine being anything else.
They’re talking, of course, about agriculture teachers – that special kind of teacher who may be teaching students to restore a 50-year-old tractor one minute and leading a lesson on hydroponics the next.
“I have been doing this 28 years and every day I enjoy going to work, every day I enjoy seeing my students and every day it’s a challenge, but I would not do anything else,” says Couture.
Trouble is, there aren’t enough agriculture teachers to go around, and that’s why the National Association of Agricultural Educators (NAAE) continues its work to urge today’s high school seniors – that means you – to become tomorrow’s agricultural teachers.
There are approximately 8,200 middle and high school agricultural education programs in all 50 states.
Nash, Whitmore and Couture – all agriculture teachers themselves – talked about their love of the profession in a video posted on the NAAE’s TeachAg website, a site that also includes everything from games like “Are You Smarter Than Your Ag Teacher?” to “Day In the Life” blogs written by agriculture teachers.
“Ag teachers spend a lot of time teaching about careers, but a lot of times they don’t think to talk about their own career,” says Julie Fritsch, NAAE communications and marketing coordinator. “Any ag teacher who has gone into the profession – probably 90 percent of them – will name their own high school agriculture teacher as the major reason why they chose to go into the profession.”
Even so, agricultural teaching jobs go unfilled each year due to a lack of qualified teachers. According to the NAAE, there are about 8,200 high school and middle school agricultural education programs in the United States and Puerto Rico. Yet, each year programs close because there aren’t enough teachers.
It’s not a new phenomenon. The U.S. Department of Interior noted a national shortage of agriculture teachers in 1921 – just four years after the passage of the Smith-Hughes Act that created the nation’s vocational education system.
Tracking such shortages has been the aim of the national “Supply and Demand” survey conducted by the American Association of Agricultural Educators since 1965.
Currently conducted by Dr. Adam Kantrovich of Michigan State University Extension, the most recent survey (published October 2010) estimated there were 30 positions that were available but went unfilled in 2009. Furthermore, the study estimated that 649 newly qualified teachers were prepared to enter the field in the fall of 2009, but only 457 of those would actually enter the classroom to fill about 840 positions. In many cases, those remaining positions were either filled by teachers who received emergency or alternative certification or the program simply failed to exist.
The average starting salary for an agriculture teacher is $42,000 per year. Ag teachers are often also contracted during the summer months for events like county fair, FFA camps and curriculum writing.
“If we don’t have ag programs at the secondary level, where are our agriculturists of tomorrow going to come from?” asked Kantrovich. “The other issue is that we have a number of individuals who walk out with [agricultural education] degrees but take jobs in the ag industry. It’s kind of hard to turn down a better salary, a pickup truck and an expense account and not have to deal with the increasing amount of paperwork that you have to do within the teaching industry.”
Larry Gossen, team leader for Local Program Success for the National FFA Organization, agrees.
“I think a lot of it is students see how hard ag teachers work, the hours they keep, the time they spend and the weekends they’re working, and they fail to see the benefit side,” Gossen says. “We touch lives, we make a difference and we really do enjoy our work. Even though it is long and does include a lot of weekends, we still have a pretty good time doing that. We need to do a better job of communicating those benefits.”
• Ag literacy coordinator
• Agricultural education professor
• Farm business management instructor
• Agricultural instructor at a two-year technical college
• Adult agricultural education instructor
• Young farmer instructor
“There are more than 300 jobs related to agriculture, and farming is just one. We need food scientists. We need geneticists,” Gossen says. “We hear from major industries all the time that they’re concerned about where they are going to get their next pipeline of future employees and we need teachers to help create that pipeline.”
That pipeline, Kantrovich says, should begin with today’s agriculture teachers in a heart-to-heart talk with high school seniors.
“You’ve got to have that heart-to-heart,” he says. “Every teacher out there sees those students who would make great ag teachers. They’ve got the personality and they’ve got the skills, and it starts off with that first initial, ‘Hey, wouldn’t you like to do this?’”
“Students almost need to feel that as a calling. It takes a special student, a special person, to be a teacher because they’ve got to enjoy serving and enjoy touching lives and watching people grow,” Gossen says. “The biggest thing we can do to help get a student to become a teacher is to tell them point blank, ‘I think you would be a good ag teacher.’”
Why Teach Ag?
Do you love FFA so much you don’t want it to end? If that describes you, the National Association of Agricultural Educators wants you to consider a career in agricultural education.
Why teach agriculture? Plenty of reasons, including:
• Variety. No day is ever the same for agriculture teachers. One day, you may be in the classroom; the next day, you may be on a farm.
• Agriculture teachers teach by doing, not just telling. It is a true applied science.
• You’ll get to share your passion for agriculture and reach students who might struggle in a traditional classroom setting.
• The topics you’ll teach are limitless. It’s not just cows and plows; it’s satellite mapping, plant and animal science, alternative energy, agribusiness and much more.
• A national shortage of agriculture teachers in secondary schools – and hundreds more nearing retirement – helps ensure that there’ll be a job waiting for you upon graduation. Plus, your agricultural education degree can be useful in a variety of settings.
Talk to your agriculture teacher about his or her job to see if it would be a good career fit for you. For more information or to find a list of schools where you can work toward your agricultural education degree, visit www.naae.org/teachag.
– Darryal Ray