Ag-teacher positions go begging

Author: Kristy

July 01, 2015 1:00 am
Paul Larson, agriculture teacher at Freedom High School in Freedom, Wisconsin, shows students Brandyn Johnson, left, and Luke VanVeghel the proper technique for using a dissolved oxygen meter to monitor water quality. This type of monitoring is used to successfully raise perch.

Hundreds of agriculture-teacher positions are going unfilled across the United States because not enough students are choosing to be agricultural educators.

The worrisome situation has been highlighted by the National Association of Agricultural Educators, a federation of state agricultural-educators associations with about 7,800 members. The shortage comes at the same time many agriculture teachers are retiring or leaving the profession, and is happening despite new agriculture programs being added.

Last year, there were 992 open agricultural-teaching positions in the country, due to 253 new or expanded agricultural programs, and to 739 teachers leaving the profession or retiring, according to a survey conducted by the association. Ninety-six of these positions went unfilled. Another 183 programs were being taught by individuals who had a teaching certificate, but who did not have a degree in agriculture education. Meanwhile, 67 programs closed due to low enrollment or budget cuts.

There are currently about 11,000 agriculture teachers nationwide, but each year an average 225 retire. Meanwhile, fewer students are pursuing degrees in agricultural education. And those who do graduate with this degree do not necessarily become teachers.

“Only about 75 percent of agricultural education graduates nationwide teach,” said Ellen Thompson, project director, National Teach Ag Campaign, an initiative launched by the National Association of Agricultural Educators to raise awareness of the need to recruit and retain agriculture teachers.

Many agricultural education graduates take jobs outside of teaching. Some decide to farm, others are attracted to positions in other fields of agriculture and some take jobs in non-related industries. It also is not uncommon for many to leave teaching. Paul Larson, agriculture teacher at Freedom High School in Freedom, Wisconsin, estimated about 40 percent of agriculture teachers leave within five years of starting to teach.

Because students in agricultural education have received training in several aspects of agriculture such as finance and crops, they are often ripe for picking by other agricultural employers, Larson said. Other students discover they do not have the patience to teach, or do not want to spend time on extracurricular activities or, for example, the travel involved with FFA events.

But others are born teachers and will make teaching a lifetime career. Agricultural-education students and teachers have told Thompson they enjoy learning something new every day, sharing their passion for agriculture with others, and traveling and developing relationships with colleagues across the country.

Compensation not commensurate with the demands of being an agriculture teacher is one reason more people do not seek employment in agricultural education or leave it after a few years. The average annual starting salary in 2012-2013 — the most recent data available from the National Association of Agricultural Educators — was $36,000 for teachers in Region 3: Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota and Nebraska.

In Wisconsin, the average salary for all agriculture teachers – all, not just starting salaries – was $49,000 per year. This figure was not audited, however, said Jeff Hicken, agriculture, food and natural resources consultant and state FFA advisor for the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.

There is now more discussion about raising teacher salaries because school districts are feeling the effects of the lack of qualified candidates, especially in specific areas like agriculture, Thompson said. However, salaries are typically determined by the master contract at each school and are set based on a number of factors, including state and local tax aid. School districts do have some flexibility for difficult-to-fill positions, but overall salaries are based on years of experience and education, she added.

Some rural school districts in the position to do so are beginning to offer signing bonuses or bumping up starting salaries to attract agriculture teachers, Larson said. In some cases, agricultural alumni have put pressure on schools to do this in the interest of training students for any career in agriculture.

Because of the nationwide shortage, more than 180 individuals have been hired to fill positions despite not being licensed agriculture teachers, Thompson said. In those cases, an individual may apply for a temporary certification while going back to school to earn a degree. Currently, eight of Wisconsin’s total 253 agricultural programs at the middle school or high school level do not have a licensed agriculture teacher, Hicken said.

Ag-education opportunities expanding

While the supply of agricultural educators is low, new and expanding agricultural programs have increased the demand for them. In 2013-2014, U.S. school districts added more than 260 new or expanded programs at the middle school and high school levels.

“The demand for new programs right now is pretty great, Thompson said. “Thankfully, school districts are keeping these programs open until they find someone to fill positions. While some school districts have closed programs because they couldn’t find an agriculture teacher, closings are not currently widespread.”

In 2007, Wisconsin established a science-equivalency-credit option for agriculture courses. This has saved some agricultural programs from being cut from school-district budgets, said Glenda Crook, agriculture-science teacher at Lodi High School in Lodi, Wisconsin. She currently teaches five agricultural classes for science-equivalency credits.

Teach-ag campaign strengthens

Crook also serves as regional vice president for Region III of the National Association of Agricultural Educators. She is involved in the association’s National Teach Ag Campaign.

Thompson said the campaign was developed to encourage youth to consider a career teaching agriculture, and to celebrate the positive contributions agriculture teachers make in their schools and communities.

“The National Teach Ag Campaign is present in nearly all places due to our connection with state and local programs,” she said.

Crook said instead of talking about being so busy in one’s job and being under stress, the association’s members make a concerted effort to focus on the positive aspects, such as the gratification of seeing one’s students succeed.

In conjunction with the Teach Ag Campaign, Crook helps her students participate in National Teach Ag Day. They are expected to teach eight different educational programs for area students in kindergarten through fifth-grade.

“This is an eye-opener for some high school students,” Crook said. “They learn about lesson-preparation objectives and presentation. It gives them a taste of what it’s like to be a teacher.”

The National Association of Agricultural Educators also has held several events in urban areas to share information about careers in agricultural education with students in urban and suburban schools.

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