Wanted: Larger crop of ag teachers to meet growing demand

By Agri-Pulse staff

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, Sept. 3, 2014 - Agriculture teachers are leaving their posts every year, while the demand for certified ag teachers is growing as more and more middle and secondary schools in urban areas want agricultural programs in their curriculum. At the same time, the number of new graduates in the field is not keeping pace, according to data from the National Council for Agricultural Education (NCAE).

In the 2012-2013 school year, the country's middle and high schools had 7,737 agriculture programs, according to the National Teach Ag campaign's 2012 Annual Report. The report estimates that almost 750 of those teachers, or about 10 percent, will retire by 2015. 

Mike Honeycutt, NCAE's managing director, said that increasing the number of teachers trained in college for ag education is a major goal of his organization. But he also emphasized that improving the pathway to certification for others, including retiring veterans, parents re-entering the workforce, and others interested in teaching agriculture “is going to be a major part of the solution to this problem.” Certification rules vary from state to state, limiting the profession's appeal to millennials who want mobility after graduation. 

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Some states are loosening their criteria by allowing people to transition from the private sector to a career in public education, “but many states still have in place very lengthy and challenging processes,” he said.  For example, Michigan requires master's degree to become a certified teacher.

“This means if you want to be an agriculture teacher you will have to go one to two extra years, with the added tuition expense, to meet qualifications to gain employment as a teacher versus only needing a two- or four-year degree to pursue other occupations in agriculture that pay as well or better than teaching,” he said.

Honeycutt also noted that this generation of graduates is less likely to settle down in one state than their predecessors. They stay in the same job for just a handful of years before moving on, he said, making the varying state certification laws a significant barrier.  

Another NCAE report - the 2013-2014 Teacher Supply and Demand Study - found that in the spring of 2013 there were 460 graduates from college agricultural education programs who sought positions as agricultural educators, but the growing number of retirees and schools with new agricultural education programs created a demand for 954 new teachers. That left a deficit of nearly 500 certified professionals needed to teach agricultural programs. A majority of these positions were filled by individuals from other teaching disciplines or by teachers coming out of retirement.

Still, “this left us 169 short, which means programs were closed or went inactive for the year with hopes of finding a teacher the next year,” Honeycutt said.

“While we have not done a good job forecasting demand - something we hope to remedy in future studies - an anecdotal look will tell you that we have a large number of Baby Boomer teachers (who will soon be retiring) so we will see this trend continue to get worse if we do not significantly increase our pipeline now,” Honeycutt said. 

In fact, he said preliminary data from the 2014-2015 update of the study, which he expects will be published within the next two months, confirms a widening gap between demand and supply. 

In addition to a growing number of retirees, Ellen Thompson, the National Teach Ag Campaign coordinator, said the strong agricultural economy over the past few years increased demand for a variety of agricultural education programs in suburban and urban schools. 

Thompson noted that teacher openings in rural areas can be the most difficult to fill, but “there is such a shortage in general” that more than 30 states have a “severe” shortage of agricultural teachers in all population areas.

According to the latest study data, the areas of greatest demand are the eastern Midwest (Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Missouri) and the southern Plains (Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico).

Julie Fritsch, marketing coordinator for the National Association of Agricultural Educators (NAAE), said that while a majority of agricultural programs are in rural areas, the association is “finding a lot of growth in urban areas, during a time when there's a heightened awareness of food products, coupled with schools looking for ways to teach science and math in a hands-on way.” She added that urban school districts want to implement new agricultural programs that are science-based, to meet a demand for food knowledge and science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education.

However, Thompson said only about 70 percent of students that graduate with an agriculture teaching degree stay on as teachers. The other 30 percent seek different fields that attract ag education majors, such as extension services or agribusiness.  

“The number-one thing we can do is help our ag teachers promote the profession,” Thompson said. For example, National Teach Ag Day, which takes place on Sept. 25 this year, is meant to encourage people to think about teaching agriculture, Thompson said.

Wyatt DeJong, an agricultural education graduate from South Dakota State University, is in his first year teaching an agricultural program at Winner High School in South Dakota. He said that varying requirements across states creates another barrier to attracting agricultural teachers. 

“Right now, if you want to go into the agriculture field, it would be lot easier to find a position elsewhere than to become a teacher,” he said. “Many people who want to be in the classroom see the certification process as a hindrance rather than a way to become a better teacher.”

Another challenge to attracting and keeping agricultural majors in the teaching field is that the degree is appealing to the industry as a whole, he noted.  “It all goes back to having that passion (for teaching), and that's what's hard,” he said. “I love what I do, but I know I could go somewhere else and that dollar value would be a lot higher.”

According to statistics compiled by NAAE, the average starting salary for ag teachers in the 2012-2013 academic year was approximately $39,000.

Although there are barriers, Wyatt - a former state and national officer with Future Farmers of America - said the demand for teachers is such that “someone who wants to be an ag teacher has the pick of where to go and the type of program.”

However, the national shortage of teachers for all disciplines is likely to continue to influence agricultural programs.  The NCAE's Honeycutt said preliminary data “tells me we are headed toward another deficit year and that deficit will be larger than it was a year ago.”

Teachers in the pre-college years are responsible for inspiring future agriculturalists, leaders and decision makers, Thompson said. He cited a survey from 11 states in which 70 percent of agricultural education majors said they chose their degree because they were influenced by their middle and high school agriculture teachers.

“It's not just about a few schools not having enough teachers, it's about building the foundation of young people excited about agriculture,” Thompson said. 

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