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