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National celebration designed to attract more ag teachers

Leaders in ag education, on Sept. 15, 2022, hope to draw more potential college students and current career professionals to think about transitioning careers into the demanding and exciting field of teaching agriculture.

Sept. 15 is National Teach Ag Day, and this year’s main event will be held in Minnesota.

CHS Foundation is hosting a National Association of Ag Educators’ #TeachAg Day webcast at the CHS Inc. headquarters in Minneapolis. This webcast will celebrate the many contributions that ag teachers make to youth, schools, and communities. Funding for National Teach Ag Day is provided by the CHS Foundation and BASF.

To view the webcast, please visit naee.org/teachag/webcast.cfm.

“The teacher shortage isn’t new, but it is continuing to be an issue, and it continues to grow mainly because we are adding new programs and current programs are adding more teaching positions,” said Ms. Sarah Dornink, executive director of the Minnesota Agricultural Education Leadership Council (MAELC).

Minnesota has added 30 agriculture high school departments in the last 12 years, expanding from 188 departments in 2010 to 218 departments in 2022. At the same time, 97 ag teacher positions have been added.

“We used to have 30-40 openings, and this year we’re already at 94 teacher openings,” Dornink said.

To fill those openings, school districts rely on both new ag teacher graduates and individuals with technical agricultural knowledge.

Especially in industrial classes, an experienced craftsperson can teach skills like ag welding, mechanics, and construction. These individuals, who haven’t gone through a traditional teacher preparation program, help schools offer courses when a trained ag teacher isn’t available.

An ag teacher is often more desirable because they have a flexible teaching license and can teach in eight different pathways – Animals, Plants, Agribusiness, Environmental and Natural Resources, Food Products and Processing, Power Structural and Technical, and Biotechnology. Virtually every ag teacher also coordinates FFA programs.

“We have the best ag teachers,” Dornink said. “They care about their students and they are super creative. I just can’t say enough good things about them.”

Minnesota has strong ag teacher retention numbers, she said, but recruiting enough teachers is difficult, according to State Teach Ag Results committee surveys.

A pathway to teaching ag

Minnesota has many initiatives and college majors designed to develop ag teachers and support current ag teachers. College majors in ag education are offered at Southwest Minnesota State University; University of Minnesota, Crookston; University of Minnesota, Twin Cities; and transfer programs from Minnesota State Colleges and Universities.

At the Minnesota FFA Convention held in April, students who commit to teaching high school ag education can participate in a “signing” celebration. MAELC, Minnesota Association of Ag Educators, and Teach Ag Minnesota are all dedicated to helping them succeed.

A good ag teacher who almost wasn’t one

In her early 30s, Mrs. Lisa Orren is in her eighth year as an ag teacher and FFA co-advisor. She spent one year teaching at Sauk Rapids-Rice Schools and then transferred to Redwood Valley Area Schools where she teaches today.

Her path toward teaching was circuitous at first.

There was no ag department in her school for her 7th-10th grade years.

Fortunately, she was still in high school (a junior) when the Redwood Falls (Redwood Valley) school district restarted their ag programs.

Her first teacher was Mr. Jeremy Daberkow, who is now a Farm Business Management faculty member.

“I only had two years of experience with agriculture classes. The first year was an introduction, but I took a role in FFA and really enjoyed it,” Orren said.

Daberkow encouraged her to attend college to teach agriculture – but without those early years of study, it seemed too daunting.

“I was pretty determined I wanted to be a veterinary technician,” Orren said, and she started her college career at Ridgewater College in Willmar. “In the meantime, I was driving from Willmar to Redwood to coach a Small Animal Vet Science Career Development Event. That sparked my interest in working with young kids and getting them interested in animals.”

She graduated from the vet tech program, but her passion, she found, was teaching.

“So, I made the jump to go back to school and pursue ag education,” she explained.

That meant two more years at Ridgewater College, completing generals and ag-specific content courses. Then she transferred to the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities to complete her bachelor’s degree, graduating in 2015.

After one year at Sauk Rapids-Rice, she found her niche at Redwood Valley.

“I graduated from Redwood plus now I teach here,” she said. “That’s been a great asset for me – building connections and continuing to build connections that I formed previously as a student.”

She’s taught many courses. This school year Orren is teaching Animal Science, Animal Health/Vet Science, Small Animal Care, Landscape Design, Horticulture, Freshman Academy, and Agriculture 8 – a four-week course introducing eighth graders to agriculture.

“For the first time ever, our middle school has an ag class on their register,” she said.

Based on her own experience, where Daberkow pointed out her potential as an ag teacher, Orren has a goal of recruiting one new ag teacher each year.

“Luckily I’ve had a lot of former students that are currently in post-secondary options for ag education,” she said.

Her first Redwood Valley graduate will complete their teacher training in 2022-23.

“I’m really proud of those students finding the value in ag education, and I hope they all pursue teaching,” Orren said. “I think if I have fun doing my job, and show how much I love my job, it will recruit students to want to be ag teachers in the future.”

What matters to Generation Z

Students graduating from high school now are part of the Gen Z generation (people born 1997-2012), Dornink said, noting that this generation wants to maintain a good work/life balance and engage in work that is meaningful.

They want to be compensated for their value and receive fair compensation.

“The youngest generation is passionate to teach and wants to do a good job, but they are going to prioritize their time,” Dornink said. “They are going to do the things that are important to their community and their students, but they are going to make intentional choices about where their time is the most valuable and set some healthy boundaries on how much time they have to give,” she continued. “They have high expectations of how the job should look, and I think that’s been a shift.”

The complexities of future ag education are almost impossible to imagine.

Fortunately, hard-working, and thoughtful agriculture leadership teams have come up with new ways to draw individuals into teaching ag coursework. With highly motivated and well-trained staff on board, Minnesota’s high school ag departments are expected to do well.

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