Ag teachers take to the field

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April 3, 2011 - 7:00pm

Colleen Abbott is perhaps the only teacher in Tuscumbia, Mo., who incorporates raw chicken breasts into her lessons.

But the lessons aren't about cooking. Abbott's focus is what's happening long before mealtime.

With a greenhouse and a large "instruction shop" at her disposal, Abbott like other agricultural education teachers takes hands-on instruction to a whole new level.

"It's a mini-farmer, a mini-cattle farmer, a mini-hog farmer, a mini-greenhouse operator ... a real jack-of-all-trades job," Abbott said. "If you have a multi-teacher department, you can get specialized in one of those, but most agriculture programs are single teacher."

Abbott launched the one-person agricultural education program at Tuscumbia School in rural Miller County, Mo., in 2005. Today, she instructs multiple subjects year-round and is available outside the classroom to junior and senior high students.

Missouri stands out for its commitment to agricultural education. With 474 ag ed high school teachers in the 2006-07 school year, Missouri trailed only Texas and California. And Missouri schools filled 62 positions that year 25 with newly qualified ag education degree holders.

Nationwide, though, there is a shortage of ag educators, according to a recent report. Many school districts have trouble finding certified agriculture teachers to staff high school programs. Researchers also point to difficulties keeping people in the field.

"You've got to be made out of something to be an ag teacher. It's not a lackadaisical kind of thing. You have to be passionate about it. If people leave, it's just not what they signed up for," Abbott said.

The life of an ag teacher

Agricultural education teachers generally follow a three-part program:

Teaching hands-on class work that may vary from fuel comparison labs to greenhouse maintenance.

Mentoring students in the summer in an agricultural setting. An ag teacher may visit several students in a week to monitor their behavior and applied knowledge from previous semesters.

Serving as the go-to adult for FFA, formerly Future Farmers of America. This may mean trips around the state for various organizational events, community agriculture presentations, fundraisers and in some FFA chapters, participation in FFA Church day.

"As you're passing the school at 8 o'clock at night on your way home, you still may see the ag teacher's vehicle sitting in the parking lot while they're there working," said Adam Kantrovich, the current author of an ongoing National Study of the Supply and Demand for Teachers of Agricultural Education, sponsored by the American Association for Agricultural Education.

Since the late 1970s, the association has documented a "precipitous decline" in ag ed graduates who pursue a teaching career. Recently, only 70 percent of agriculture education majors have gone on to teach. Kantrovich's study of the 2006-07 school year found 78 teachers were needed, but were unavailable, so 40 high school departments nationwide were unable to employ a full-time ag teacher.

Kantrovich, who also is the Farm Management Educator at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Mich., said a 40+ workweek is the rule for ag teachers who prescribe to the recommended three-part ag program.

Not so abstract

Abbott, the Tuscumbia Schools teacher, said students need agricultural education.

"Agriculture education teaches real career skills today. They'll be learning English, but then when they come to the ag room, we're turning that into a newspaper article something that they did, you know, curing over the winter, and then showing them at the fair," she said. "And that's something I even saw as a student. Physics was so abstract, I got an A in it, but did I really learn anything? Some of the things that are physics principles made so much more sense when they were applied to the agriculture context."

Some rural schools have resorted to hiring professionals who don't have years of agriculture education training. The teachers may have real world experience to share but don't have the skills to manage a classroom and young minds.

Some neighboring school districts also may share ag ed teaches. That's how Abbott began at Tuscumbia, until the school funded a full-time position.

University professors and education researchers said Missouri has overcome ag teacher shortages because public universities such as the University of Missouri-Columbia and Missouri State University in Warrensburg, heavily recruit ag-minded high-schoolers.

Still, the state's ag education majors don't always continue in the education career. Graduates sometimes jump from the teacher track to working for seed companies or farm equipment re-sellers. These careers offer more pay, less overtime and expect less from one person.

To avoid losing valuable certified teachers, the state works to retain them once they're in a classroom. And professional ag education organizations specifically focus on mentoring new teachers.

This creates a network of support that Abbott said helped give her more time to build a program that can make a difference.

"Two years ago, I had a student that, he'd actually moved here and they paid tuition for him to come to school here so he could be a part of the ag program," Abbott said. "Even looking at my own life, I don't know where I would be without my ag teacher. Because you spend so much time with them, and you become very close to them. It's like they're your own kids a lot of times."

To see a photo slide show and hear more audio from the feature, visit the Harvest Public Media web site

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