A decade ago it would have been accurate to describe the shortage of qualified, certified agriculture teachers in classrooms across the nation as a “crisis.”

While today there is still a shortage, the situation has been improving as a variety of efforts have been undertaken on national, state and local levels to address the problem, said Ellen Thompson, project director of the National Teach Ag Campaign launched in 2009 to recruit and support agriculture teachers.

Recently retired, FFA ag teacher and advisor Jose Bernal can tell you about the long hours and dedication of our state's agriculture teachers. 

The multipronged efforts seek to address three areas:

1.      Recruit interested high school and college students to pursue a career in agriculture education.

2.      Retain those who are majoring in agriculture education.

3.      Retain current agriculture teaches, helping ensure that they thrive professionally and personally.

Arizona leaders are embracing the challenge and are presenting some solutions of their own.

The Arizona Agricultural Education/FFA Foundation is “highly concerned and is actively working to address the challenge (of the ag educator shortage),” said Neil A. Schneider, director of development for the organization.

One step the foundation has undertaken is to join forces with the Arizona Farm Bureau to fund the Arizona Ag Education Program Evaluation Instrument, a multi-phased effort to help ag teachers evaluate their programs and plan for professional development.

The project was first proposed several years ago by two agriculture teachers who are members of Team Ag Ed: April Scibienski of Desert Edge High School in Goodyear and Curtis Willems from Highland High School in Gilbert. It was at a Team Ag Ed meeting that the collaboration took place to take the document the two teachers had put together and model it after the National Quality Program.

The AAEPI provides Arizona ag teachers with a tool to self-evaluate what their programs are doing well and determine in what areas they need improvement. This tool can be used for the teacher’s own reference, or it can even be used by advisory boards and school administrators as evidence of areas they need assistance with, such as equipment and contacts.

In the second phase of AAEPI, ag teachers are asked to “go deeper and submit evidence of what they’re doing with their program, such as photos,” Scibienski said.

This summer, teachers met in Tucson and peer reviewed those second-phase program improvement plans. More seasoned teachers were paired with younger teachers to assist them with goals and objectives for their local curriculum and program improvement and to guide them to the most successful outcomes, lending some experience.

Other phases will follow as AAEPI continues to be developed.

So far AEPI has been well received by teachers, Scibienski said. “Conversation around the table was helpful. We’re trying to find out if there are areas we need to focus on for professional development … to be sure we’re targeting the needs of ag teachers, not just picking a general topic.”

Recognizing that ag teachers are already over-extended, they’re being provided a grant for participating in AAEPI.

“Arizona Farm Bureau recognizes the importance of this tool for assessing our local programs and understands the time and effort that is required to complete it,” said Katie Aikins, director of education for the organization. “Our Arizona ag teachers are already stretched for time and over-committed so we wanted to reward them for the time they dedicated to the process.”

Therefore, for each of the last two years, Arizona Farm Bureau has provided a stipend for each teacher who has completed the evaluation, she said.

Funding is also being provided by the Arizona Agricultural Education/FFA Foundation, but is in need of industry support. Said Schneider: “As the primary funding body for FFA and agricultural education in Arizona, we are seeking companies and individuals who can step forward and help fund this new teacher recognition program, which is designed for improving local agriculture programs.”

Schneider explained that the program will reward teachers who improve their programs by holding them to rigorous standards in three main areas: Classroom and laboratory instruction, work-based learning and their impacts on leadership and personal development through their local FFA chapter.

“AAPEI is a way to reward motivated teachers who strive to improve their local program,” he said. "We believe AAEPI is one important step in helping retain agriculture teachers in our high school classrooms.”

On another front, there’s an effort to help compensate ag teachers for the additional hours they put in as teachers and FFA advisors. While the terms vary, many high school districts across the state offer summer contracts to pay the teachers for the work they put in during the summer months, such as continuing to work with students on their supervised projects, maintaining land labs and accompanying FFA members to various meetings, conventions and competitions.

For example, the Gilbert High School District offers a 30-day extended contract for 240 hours of additional work the ag teachers put in during the summer, explained Doug Daley, career and technical education director for the district.

“A student's supervised agricultural experiences don’t stop when school is out,” he said. “They have jobs, animals and crops to take care of. In a lot of cases, schools have facilities like greenhouses to maintain.”

He said all 10 ag teachers in the GILBERT district take advantage of the summer program. “It definitely is helping to retain teachers.”

There are benefits besides economic to the summer contracts, Daley said. “Teachers get to work with students one-on-one … they build relationships.” And students receive personalized instruction in skills “above and beyond the classroom.”

Parents and FFA alumni can help by making sure school administrators are aware of summer contracts and their importance to content and impact of the ag education program, Daley said.

That’s but one way parents and FFA alumni can support their local agriculture education program.

The Yuma High School District, for example, has an active booster club that provides a variety of assistance, “anyway we can relieve their burden,” said Raney Embree, president of the Yuma Territorial FFA Alumni Club. It raises funds to help transport FFA members to state conferences, meetings and competitions as well as offer scholarships for students to participate. And it provides jackets for those who can’t afford them.

The club will also provide coaches for career events, mentors for projects, judges for competitions, industry experts for classroom presentations and advocates for the importance of career and technical education.

“Ag teachers put in a lot of work because of all the outside activities. We try to help wherever we’re needed,” Embree said. “We’re kind of on speed-dial.”

Meanwhile, a scholarship fund established by Wellton-area farmer Jerry Cullison is having a positive impact on students who want to become agriculture teachers. Cullison’s father, Joseph Ralph "J.R." Cullison, was a highly recognized agricultural education teacher in Arizona. To continue his father’s legacy, Cullison established a $1 million endowment fund that provides scholarships to University of Arizona agricultural education students. It also provides funding support for their student teaching.

“It’s outstanding that someone would come to us with that support … that kind of money,” said Bruce Watkins, who oversees agricultural education for the Arizona Department of Education. “It’s starting to show benefits. It’s bringing in kids. We’re seeing a pick-up of graduates through the UA program.”

Last year a total of $33,000 was given to 11 scholarship recipients, said Dr. Robert Torres, University of Arizona department head of agriculture education and Neely Family Endowed professor. He noted that the scholarships especially are helpful for recipients during the most challenging part of their education when they have the living expenses of student teaching while also having to pay college tuition.

Cullison’s funding also supports an award program that recognizes young students who have been identified as potential agriculture teachers, students who become the “A list” for recruiting into UA’s agricultural education study program, said Torres.

“It doesn’t mean we’ll get them all,” he said of the Cullison scholars. “But the ones we do will be a great thing.”

Perhaps, he added, some who choose to go to work in the ag industry instead of the classroom at some point will come back into ag education. “That influence lasts forever. They decide they want to make a difference in the lives of others like someone did me.”

Torres noted that UA has the largest number of freshmen majoring in ag education in years. And 11 students – more than in recent years - are going out to student teach in ag education next spring.

Torres is further encouraged by the joint efforts made by many groups to address the ag teacher shortage and the improvements that have been made in recent years.

“It takes a community to raise awareness of the value of ag teachers … to promote it as a career choice,” he said.

Concluded Schneider, “Rewarding teachers for local program improvement (AAPEI), scholarships, FFA Alumni support and experienced industry members coming into the classroom are all viable options to maintain a steady supply of teachers and hopefully keep them in the classroom impacting our youth. I would encourage anyone who wants to help support these efforts to contact me at the Foundation.”

Editor’s Note : For more information, contact Schneider at neil@azffafoundation.org or (602) 705-9211.

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