Schools around the country continue the search for ag teachers
September 16, 2016
Classrooms are buzzing with typical start-of-school excitement across the nation. But at Terry High School in eastern Montana, the learning space expected to be the loudest is devoid of all noise – and students.
Table saws and oxy-acetylene torches sit silent in the shop building that for years housed woodshop and welding classes. After a nationwide recruiting effort this summer, the program closed for lack of a teacher.
"We included in our search welding, shop, automotive and ag teachers – we just really wanted to maintain any kind of vo-tech program here," said Tammi Masters, principal of Terry Public Schools. "We even tried to recruit local community members to teach on a 45-day basis. We couldn't find anyone."
Across the nation vocational tech programs are struggling to find qualified teachers to guide their classrooms.
“I believe one of our purposes is to prepare students for ag-related careers, but [without teachers] we could be looking at a huge shortage of potential employees.”
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Ellen Thompson is the project director of the National Teach Ag Campaign, sponsored by the National Council on Agricultural Education. She says their job is to work to provide and increase a supply of quality and diverse ag teachers, and to encourage students to pursue a degree in agricultural education. There is definite shortage of ag teachers, but it's not ag ed's problem alone.
"What we are dealing with is very similar to what a lot of the vocational trades are seeing," she said. "And this shortage is actually following a national trend of a decrease in the number of teachers in general."
For many students, career and vo-tech classes are their "fun" classes – the ones where they build things, take things apart, create and learn through doing.
The term vo-tech has technically shifted to the term "career and technology education," or CTE, within the educational system. The national Association for Career and Technical Education identifies 16 career clusters with a variety of specialized pathways – they include traditional subjects like animal science, woodworking and auto repair. But there are relative newcomers like software development and biotechnology. Apart from traditional core academic classes, CTE courses are designed to develop proficiencies such as technical, leadership and employability skills – aptitudes that apply in real-world careers.
Stats about career and technical classes show positive effects. According to the ACTE, the average high school graduation rate for students involved in these programs is 93 percent, compared to an average national rate of 80 percent. And they're not just for those entering the workforce immediately. More than 75 percent of secondary career and technical education students pursued postsecondary education shortly after high school.
Kenton Oschner is the Colorado State FFA Advisor. He said outside of student development, some of the biggest concerns of an ag teacher shortage are the growing rural-urban divide and the lack of students who understand where food comes from, as well as the glut of ag jobs predicted that may not have qualified applicants to fill them in the future.
"I believe one of our purposes is to prepare students for ag-related careers, but [without teachers] we could be looking at a huge shortage of potential employees," Oschner said.
So what is causing the shortage?
Thompson says with ag education in particular, there are both good and bad factors influencing the deficit. First, there is an increase in demand, but there is also a decrease in supply.
"The good is we have seen tremendous growth in ag education programs across the nation – many schools are going from one teacher to two, and districts are opening new programs," Thompson said.
The statistics nationwide are stunning.
In 2015 there were 11,834 ag teachers nationwide and 1,028 positions open. Of these, 201 were new jobs from program growth and expansion. Nebraska alone added 26 new programs – schools where ag classes had never been taught – just last year.
The bad, said Thompson, is there is a 30-40 percent decrease in the number of students entering education majors in general across the nation. Especially within ag ed, a large percent of the graduates are not pursuing teaching, but are recruited to more lucrative jobs in the private or business sector. In 2015, the nation graduated 742 ag ed degree holders, but only 512 of them planned to go into teaching, and 619 left teaching for other opportunities.
"These students are highly sought after by industry; they're picked up quickly," Oschner said.
After everything shook out, 80 positions nationwide went unfilled and 207 jobs were filled with a non-licensed teacher. About 42 programs closed due to low enrollment, budgets, lack of teacher, or a combination.
The stats aren't as clear cut on career and technical classes as a whole as they are with agriculture.
"There is a lot of negative stereotyping of teachers in the media and politicians. That belief is being perpetuated across the nation – that it's not a good field to enter," Thompson says. "Our job is to remind students of the intangible benefits of teaching, of the opportunity to influence lives, to make a difference, and to have an exciting, challenging career."
Certainly salary has a negative connotation with job prospectors. Average salary across the nation just topped $40,000. However, Oschner points out that industry sector jobs are, realistically, only guaranteed two weeks at a time, and bring about longer hours, more geographic moves and less flexibility than teaching.
"Teaching offers a lot of intrinsic benefits that can't be measured with money," he said.
So what can be done about the shortage of ag and other vo-tech teachers?
To start with, many states offer alternative teacher certification programs. In Montana, ag industry professionals can apply by proving a certain number of hours worked in the industry. Additionally, according to Mike Womochil, who works with Oschner as the Colorado State Agricultural Program Director, ag programs are pulling – or pooling – resources from or with traditional core instructors. Science teachers have an easier correlation, but even social sciences or English teachers are crossing over to teach ag, Womochil said.
All agree that support for vo-tech programs must start at the local level.
"It's important for communities that already have an ag program to be supportive of the program – volunteer, serve on advisory boards and support professional development for your teacher," Thompson said.
Lastly, it's important to realize that teaching as a career has more deep-rooted benefits than money can buy.
"The return on time isn't immediate," Womochil said. "You don't get instant gratification. You make a decent living, but the real return is four, five or more years later when your students come back and tell you, 'What you taught me set me on the path to being successful.' That's when you really know why you became a teacher." ❖