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Minnesota nurtures new agricultural education teachers

By Janet Kubat Willette

Date Modified: 04/11/2013 9:05 AM

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Ryan Steele wasn't sure what he wanted to be when he grew up, but his agricultural education teacher planted a seed that perhaps he should consider teaching agricultural education.

A couple other agricultural education teachers he'd met along the way nurtured that seed and now Steele is in his 12th year of teaching at Lewiston-Altura High School, where he is also the FFA adviser.

Pam Koenen is the teacher who first encouraged Steele to consider a career in agricultural education. She has two former students who are agricultural education teachers, Steele and Alison Newman, who teaches at Byron. Three other students are teachers at Alden-Conger Public Schools, where she's in her 22nd year of teaching.

A statewide shortage of agricultural education teachers exists. On average, 25 to 30 openings occur each year, said Joel Larsen, agricultural education program specialist at the Minnesota Department of Education. For the 2012-13 school year, six teachers have a variance to teach agricultural education, meaning they are instructing outside the field they are licensed in. Three additional programs weren't able to hire a teacher and turned to a community expert to guide the FFA program.

Larsen is working with the three schools to look at their curriculum and hopefully, they will be able to post their opening in winter or spring, he said. They posted in late summer 2012 when there was nobody left.

The market for agricultural education majors has been good, Larsen said. Graduates in the major have more options than ever to pursue careers in teaching or agriculture industry.

Half of the agricultural education majors who graduated with Amber Seibert are still teaching. There were 12 agricultural education graduates from the University of Minnesota's St. Paul and Crookston campuses when she graduated in 2010.

She's one of the six who's still teaching. Seibert is restarting the agricultural education and FFA program at Fairmont High School. She has 100 students in grades nine through 12 and roughly 30 to 40 who are active in FFA.

Seibert has a mentor in the school's auto shop teacher and she knows she can call any agricultural education teacher in the state to answer any specific agricultural education question. They compete in FFA events, but want each other to succeed, she said.

There are 183 agricultural education programs in the state. Five programs have three teachers, 23 programs have two teachers and 136 programs have one full-time instructor. Twenty-one programs in the state that are less than full time. Most of these agricultural education programs offer FFA as there are more than 175 FFA chapters.

The number of programs has been relatively steady according to recent research, said Brad Greiman, associate professor in the agricultural education program at the U of M. The same research said a quarter of agricultural education teachers are likely or very likely to leave the profession in the next four years. The research was completed in 2011.

Efforts are afoot to encourage high school students to consider a career as an agricultural education teacher. A workshop, 'Change Lives . . . Teach Ag Ed," is held at the Minnesota State FFA Convention. Around 40 to 50 high school juniors and seniors attend the workshop. Participants are identified by their agricultural education teachers as having the potential to be ag ed teachers.

Students who prefer to stay closer to home before transferring to the St. Paul campus can participate in transfer programs offered through several Minnesota State Colleges and Universities campuses.

Brad Schloesser, dean of the Southern Minnesota Center for Agriculture at South Central College, said students take courses at South Central and then transfer to the University of Minnesota. Students can take three courses through ITV offered by the U of M while enrolled at MNSCU campuses throughout the state. The formal transfer agreement for agricultural education was established in 1999, he said.

If students are interested in agricultural education, places exist for them to start their education besides the U of M, Schloesser said.

"It's not about where you start, it's about where you end," Greiman said.

Transferring may also offer the student better odds of being admitted to the major, Greiman said. Tremendous competition exists to be admitted to the U of M as a freshman, he said.

Two-year colleges have several benefits, said Schloesser, a transfer student himself.

Class sizes are smaller, the communities in which the schools are located are smaller and "it's more affordable."

"If we can get them started and equipped to be successful as a lifelong learner at a MNSCU institution, after one year or two years or three years they can be securing a degree in agricultural education at the U of M," he said.

For those who are may want to make a career shift to teach agricultural education a post-bachelor's program is offered at the U of M, Greiman said. Graduates who have a bachelor's degree, preferably in an agricultural or natural resources area, are the best candidates to pursue this option and become licensed to teach in a year. The program starts in the spring and includes summer and fall courses before student teaching the following spring.

Those with a liberal arts background may need more time to meet requirements and pass the Minnesota licensed teacher exam.

MAELC is offering four scholarships for post-bachelor's degree students, Greiman said.

Teacher retention is another focus. The Teacher Induction Program puts first-year teachers in a cohort group of other first-year teachers.

Teachers in the program also have a teacher mentor in their region and a retired teacher mentor who may visit their classroom to offer advice.

That's the thing about agricultural education teachers, Steele said, their colleagues aren't in the same building, rather they're all across the state. There are 31 teachers in Region 8 who know each other, and share rides to contests and conventions. It's a strong support network, he said.