URBANA, Ill. — Demand for agriculture education teachers in Illinois high schools is higher than the supply of new educators. And it doesn’t appear that the gap will shrink anytime soon.

“We average 25 to 30 job openings in the state every year,” said Gary Ochs, a teaching associate in agricultural science education at the University of Illinois. “This year, we have only five student teachers going out.

“Sometimes (high schools) will go up to almost the beginning of school, if not into the school year, looking for a qualified ag teacher. There are several schools in the state that have out-of-state teachers.”

The U of I and the three other ag colleges in the state — Southern Illinois University, Illinois State University and Western Illinois University — are not able to produce enough graduates to meet the teaching shortage. One reason is competition from the corporate world.

“For the past 80 to 90 years across America, there has always been a shortage,” said Seb Pence, an ag education professor at SIU. “That’s mainly because of the graduates who get credentialed to teach, about 50 percent are siphoned off by industry. Given that, we’re in a unique situation now, where the problem is much greater.”

Ochs witnesses a move from teaching to other disciplines on a regular basis.

“They see jobs in the ag industry, and they just pay a lot better than teaching does,” he said. “Unfortunately, high school kids sometimes see the dollar signs and maybe not the end result. We lose some of our top prospects to working in the industry. That’s one of the bigger issues.”

Average starting salaries for ag teachers range from $32,000 to $35,000, Pence said.

Higher Qualifications

Requirements enacted by the State Board of Education in recent years may have exacerbated the problem. The state has intensified steps students must take to attain teaching certificates.

“They have to take various tests, including basic skills testing,” Ochs said. “They also have to do a content-based test. And they have to do TB testing to get into the classrooms, background checks, everything that costs a little money. And for college students, money is often a little bit hard to come by.”

Pence is frank about his view of the more stringent requirements, noting that the state board revised entry-level tests for all teacher education programs. High school students in their sophomore year must take the test to get into a college program.

“Whoever revised the tests either did that intentionally to cut the number of teachers entering education or they didn’t know anything about how to develop a test,” Pence said. “The pass rate for the first two rounds of the test had a 28 percent pass rate. That cut numbers immediately, and not just in ag ed, but with every discipline.”

The workload of ag education teachers also can be daunting. Most ag education teachers also serve as FFA advisers. That means working many evenings and weekends.

“A number of high school kids see the hours teachers and FFA advisers put in,” Ochs said. “One thing that we tell our students is that you have to make time for yourselves and for your families. We’ve kind of hurt ourselves a little bit because we do put in a lot of hours. We’re trying to find a healthy balance, which is something a lot of teachers are taking a better view at.”

Dedicated To Teaching

Most students in ag education programs feel a calling to go into teaching, Pence believes.

“Those students who go into teaching agriculture, they usually don’t go into it for the financial aspect,” he said. “It’s more a deep commitment to serve students that draws them in and keeps them committed.”

The problem continues even after high school graduates begin their teaching careers. The lure of private enterprise is sometimes too strong to resist.

“Educators are seen as good planners and good communicators. An ag educator would also have a breadth of knowledge,” Pence said. “In ag education, we have our students take a little bit of every aspect — animal science, plant science, agribusiness, horticulture, all across the board. So our graduates are viewed highly by industry. They are very marketable.”

Ironically, the ag industry is seen as possibly being part of the solution. Ochs would like to see private companies step up and offer assistance.

“Some of that is going to have to come from industry,” he said. “It would be great if they could help with some of the costs student teachers face. They can’t have a job while they’re student teaching, so they don’t have any income. They’re paying for additional rent somewhere else. They don’t take any classes while they’re student teaching, while they’re still paying tuition. It may take industry maybe helping us out a little with this.”