Needed: New ag teachers
At the Iowa FFA state convention in April, I helped judge one of the career development events. Each year I’m reminded how judging these contests isn’t easy, because these young people turn out so much good work. This year I was a member of a team that judged chapter activity displays.
We evaluated 200 exhibits lining the hallways of Hilton Coliseum at Ames. A few hours later we tallied our score sheets to get down to the top 10 and then the final five. We could have flipped a coin to determine gold, silver and bronze. Congrats to all chapters and FFA members for their work and creative effort in the competitions and other events at the conference.
The annual Iowa FFA State Leadership Conference is the fourth largest in the U.S. This year 5,400 students, parents, guests and ag industry members attended the event at Iowa State University. Iowa has 226 FFA chapters and 14,000 FFA members.
A unique event took place this year. Iowa FFA held a ceremony at the formal opening: 30 FFA members from various high schools signed “letters of intent” to become ag teachers. They plan to study ag education in college. The event was modeled after the “signing days” for college athletes. The Iowa FFA members who signed were mostly graduating seniors. The ceremony was held to recognize young people interested in an ag teaching career.
“We are trying to think of everything we can to get more young people interested in teaching agriculture,” said Josh Remington, executive director of the Iowa FFA Foundation. “We have school districts in the state now that would like to start ag education programs, but they can’t because they can’t find a teacher.”
Schools adding ag teachers
Even though school consolidation continues in rural Iowa, demand for ag teachers remains strong, as many districts add ag programs or beef up existing ones. Many suburban districts have added ag programs. The urban Des Moines district now employs two ag teachers at its Central Campus program. Dowling Catholic has an ag program and an FFA chapter.
Schools are recognizing that agriculture fits well with the emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). Students recognize all the careers they can pursue by studying agriculture. School districts are emphasizing ag education because they are getting support from local businesses and community leaders. Communities want education to fit into real-world experiences, and agriculture works perfectly for that, noted Remington.
Meanwhile, veteran ag teachers, many who started their careers during the 1980s farm crisis, are nearing retirement, and districts will need to fill those positions. Adding to that is ag education graduates, along with some of those already in teaching, are often hired away by agribusiness. These teachers and ag college grads have a broad knowledge and are adept at communicating with other people, making them attractive candidates.
The answer to the ag teacher shortage is to find more young people interested in entering the field and supporting them when they do, said Dale Gruis, state ag education adviser with the Iowa Department of Education. The “letters of intent” ceremony is an example of the creative thinking needed to help encourage young people to pursue an ag education degree and become certified to teach.
In Iowa this spring, ag education had about 20 unfilled teaching positions. Some states have had ag ed instructor shortages for many years, but 2015-16 is Iowa’s first official year of a shortfall, said Gruis. Also, 25% of Iowa’s high school ag ed teachers are eligible to retire by 2018.
“Public education has many disciplines with teacher shortages,” he noted. “Nationally, the number of college students pursuing degrees to teach grades K-12 is down 30% from a few years ago. Education has made the United States great. Will we remain a great nation if educators disappear? Don’t most people have a former teacher whom they admire?”
Another way to spark young people’s interest in ag education is by mentoring them. “If we see a student who has an interest, it’s good to nudge them along a little bit to see if teaching is a good fit,” said Eric Miller, ag instructor at Atlantic in western Iowa. He had not one but two students who signed letters of intent at the recent state FFA conference: Haley Carlson and Aubry Schwarte. This fall Carlson will go to Iowa State University, and Schwarte will go to Northwest Missouri State.
Both students are seniors in high school and were raised on a farm. When asked why she signed, Carlson said, “Mr. Miller has had a big, positive impact on our classroom. My FFA career got me involved, helped me develop skills and helped me see how ag teachers are really supportive of students. FFA and high school ag classes instilled in me a passion for agriculture and a desire to help future students succeed in the classroom and in their careers.”
Schwarte said, “I wanted to be a farmer for most of my life. But being in Mr. Miller’s classes made me realize I want to be an ag teacher, to share my passion for agriculture and for learning with young people, future generations. It’s going to be a real challenge to feed a growing world population in the years ahead, and there are many ways young people can contribute and be a part of the solution.”
Rod Swoboda rod.swoboda@ penton.com
This article published in the June, 2016 edition of WALLACES FARMER.
All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2016.