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Agriculture Teachers Are in Short Supply


Jersey County native Jacob Meisner is one of a select few in Illinois — he’s using his degree in agricultural education to become a teacher when he graduates in May. But like virtually all others who attain that degree in this state, he was tempted by the private sector.

During an internship spanning two summers with Osborn Barr in St. Louis, an agricultural marketing agency, “they told me they wished I wasn’t going into teaching and they had hoped to swing me their direction,” Meisner said. “But they knew that I really loved teaching and my skills would be really well used in the classroom. But if I wasn’t teaching, it would be an awesome place to work.”

Andrew Bowman, a Gilman farmer and the chairman of the Illinois Leadership Council for Agricultural Education, says “the real problem is that the jobs are almost too good in the industry.”

“Our average first-year agricultural teacher salary is $36,975, compared to a $44,900 average for Illinois university ag majors taking industry positions,” Bowman said. “If you have student debt, how do you say no to nearly an extra $10,000?”

Jesse Faber, an agricultural educator at Pontiac High School and president of the Illinois Association of Vocational Agricultural Teachers, agrees.

“If a student is majoring in agricultural education and a seed company or ag business company comes up to them in November of their senior year and offers them a company vehicle, full benefits, retirement and everything, what’s the logic in that student turning that down before they’ve even student-taught and they don’t know if teaching jobs might be open next year?” Faber said.

‘Critical shortage’

The salary disparity between education and industry is one facet of a problem that is compounded by another issue – there are many more agricultural teaching jobs than there are graduates to fill them. According to Facilitating Coordination in Agriculture Education, there are just four universities in Illinois that have agricultural education teacher-preparation programs.

Illinois State University, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Southern Illinois University-Carbondale and Western Illinois University are collectively expected to graduate approximately 24 student-teachers this spring in their agriculture education programs. At least four of those graduates have indicated they will not pursue teaching positions with their degrees. According to the FCAE, those 20 remaining graduates will be able to choose from an estimated 60-plus agricultural teaching positions that will come open in Illinois, and many more if they look outside of the state.

“Last year, we had 65 job openings. But with only 18 people graduating, that presents a big difficulty,” said FCAE program adviser Kathy Novotney. “And of those 18 graduates, only 13 went straight into teaching. Every state in the nation except two, and one of those is Rhode Island, is experiencing this critical shortage, not having enough people to teach agriculture.”

“The ag industry is out to get those students just as much as we are, because they know how good communicators they are, how well they work with people, and how well they can represent their company,” Novotney said. “In fact the agriculture industry in general does not have enough candidates to fill positions in all sectors. It’s a wonderful thing for ag education students, but a terrible thing for the ag education profession.”

4-H, then what?

A recent study by the Illinois Association of Regional School Superintendents found that schools are struggling to fill agricultural education positions and find qualified candidates, with the demand for graduates exceeding supply by an average of 32 per year.

“What I’m hearing statewide from superintendents is that there aren’t enough agricultural program teachers to fill the positions available,” said Jeff Vose, regional superintendent of the Sangamon/Menard Regional Office of Education and current president of the state association. “Those numbers are much higher in rural districts. And as the baby boomers retire, the shortage could get worse.”

The problem starts in the high schools.

“We have a large number of youth that get started in studying about agriculture at a younger age, starting with 4-H enrollment at the age of 8,” said Illinois 4-H youth development specialist Bill Million. “As they continue to grow and develop, through junior high and high school, a lot of those youth would like to enroll in agriculture, but unfortunately their schools do not offer that opportunity for them.”

The Springfield School District is among many in the state that do not offer agriculture programs, according to spokeswoman Bree Hankins.

Million said Illinois 4-H programs reach approximately 200,000 youth per year.

“There are still quite a few students that would like to be teachers. Being a former ag teacher myself, I always view having that knowledge base, being able to teach others, is a quality that nobody can take away from you,” Million said. “And so many of the skills that you learn in becoming a classroom instructor can transfer to so many other avenues within agriculture.”

Tapping lay people

One way many school districts are making up for the shortage is through an educator license with stipulations, a special teacher license offered through the State Board of Education that rates real-world experience and then allows lay people to teach subjects that are limited to their area of expertise. For agricultural experience, those licenses can be issued to allow people to teach agricultural science, business management, mechanics and technology, horticulture, and natural resources conservation management.

“Last year, we had 28 new alternative licenses, one of our highest years ever. A total of 73 of the 320 high school agriculture education programs in Illinois currently have an alternatively licensed teacher,” the FCAE’s Novotney said.

The Illinois Farm Bureau also tries to help meet the need with its Illinois agriculture in the classroom program for grades K-8.

“We trace our roots back to the 1920s when farm wives would go into classrooms and make butter and take in petting zoos,” said education director Kevin Daugherty. “There’s a program in every county. Last year, we worked with 31,000 regular education teachers and more than half a million students.”

Multifaceted field

Many of those who work as agriculture educators in Illinois love their chosen careers.

“It is very rewarding seeing the students realize that ‘Hey, I can actually go out and weld a bead, or scout a field, or do some hands-on activities,’” said Jeff Hammann, an agriculture teacher and FFA adviser at Carlinville High School for the past 12 years. “I’ve enjoyed everything about it. There are a lot of students out there that have never been on a farm that come through here, and they get excited about where their food comes from.”

Jennifer Smith has taught agriculture at Williamsville High School for two years and at several other schools before that. She likes the variety, something other teachers may not experience.

“The best part of my day is that I get to teach a multitude of things, and enjoy animal science, plant science, welding, ag business,” Smith said. “In the ag world, we teach a little bit of everything, so I get to use what I enjoy and love in lots of different areas.”

“I tell my kids that agriculture directly or indirectly affects just about any job they will come into contact with,” Smith said. “When it’s on their resume or people see it on their transcripts, it kind of opens up a door for them.”

Both Hammann and Smith said they encourage any student who seems interested to pursue a career in agriculture education, something that those in the industry are actively encouraging as well.

“We welcome efforts to attract more highly qualified candidates because as we look down the road, we expect more exciting growth and opportunity in agribusiness,” said Chris Olsen, a spokesman Tate & Lyle, a London-based agribusiness company with a major facility in Decatur. “We’ve had good success attracting high-quality college graduates to work at Tate & Lyle in agriculture-related fields.”

Tougher new testing standards for all teachers, plus additional expectations for agriculture education majors, may be deterring some young people from careers as agriculture educators. Erica Thieman is an assistant professor of agricultural education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and she has all of those students seeking that degree in her classroom during their time at the university.

“Our students are expected to take a broad range of course work so they learn applications across the disciplines. They take soil and food science, economics, crop and animal science,” Thieman said. “This helps them to teach a broader range of topics, because the ag education curriculum in the state of Illinois is pretty broad. Our students also get quite a bit of leadership training and experience. That particular piece makes them especially marketable.”

“Contrary to public opinion, teaching does require a very specific skill set. It is a profession,” Thieman said. “Our students must learn behavior-management techniques and the latest teaching methods, and use educational technology to enhance students’ experience in the classroom. But they must also realize that students don’t always just sit in their chairs and do exactly what they’re told.”

‘Can be picky’

The state’s ongoing budget impasse doesn’t help, either.

“When a student feels like they want to be an ag teacher because they really admire their high school ag teacher, they tell that to their parents, and their parents say, ‘I don’t think you should become a teacher, look at what’s on the news,’” Thieman said. “The state of Illinois is in a pretty precarious position, and it makes recruiting teachers very difficult.”

However, once they graduate, agriculture education majors shouldn’t have trouble finding employment.

“I have school districts from Iowa, Indiana and even further away that send out emails across our ag education list serve saying, ‘Hey, we are looking for teachers desperately,’” Thieman said. “It is definitely a highly employable career to go into.”

“Those who do graduate and pursue an ag teaching career will have offers. They can be picky. They do not have to take the first job offered to them,” the FCAE’s Novotney said. “That is wonderful, because those teachers have all of these great opportunities.”

The soon-to-graduate Meisner, who is student-teaching at Richland County High School in Olney, had no difficulty finding a job. He considered several opportunities, including one in the Pleasant Plains School District, before accepting an agriculture educator position at the appropriately named Farmington, about 20 miles west of Peoria.

With zero student debt due to several generous scholarships, he was more free than most students when considering his first job out of college, so he followed his passion.

“Being able to share the information about our state and nation’s most important industry is something I really enjoy. You make a huge impact in the lives of students,” Meisner said. “When you build those connections with kids, as I’ve started to do student-teaching, you get that excitement of knowing that you are really impacting them.”

Source: David Blanchette, Springfield State Journal-Register

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