VIENNA, Ill. — It’s a rare occasion when ag students have three levels of educators in their classroom at the same time.
That recently happened to agriculture education teacher Jason West’s students at Vienna High School when Illinois ag ed chief Dean Dittmar checked up on Southern Illinois University Carbondale student teacher Vanessa Williams.
In one of his roles with the Illinois State Board of Education Facilitating Coordination in Agricultural Education until next August, Dittmar works with ag ed student teachers within his southern Illinois region as well as help them land ag teacher jobs in Illinois.
Yet, Dittmar also recently was promoted into a new position as the top coordinator of the state’s entire FCAE program.
While his regional position will be filled when school starts next fall, Dittmar is doing both jobs for now, and that included working with Williams and West. Here are their views on the state of ag education.
Dittmar’s challenge these days is double edged – there’s a shortage of teachers in general in Illinois and especially for ag education teachers.
“The current state of ag education would be we need more young professions coming from not only family farms but also outside the family farm,” Dittmar said.
Through FCAE, Illinois is divided into five regions to help this situation. The work starts with such programs as Illinois Farm Bureau’s Ag in the Classroom and FFA and continues through placement of not only new ag education teachers but also beginning professionals into all agricultural fields.
While agriculture has never enjoyed a broader definition than it does today, Dittmar agreed that agriculture is a wide, open world of opportunity but there simply aren’t enough ag graduates to fill the jobs, including in ag ed.
“We need more in the pipeline,” he said, adding that the latest published USDA information estimated a 39% shortage of ag graduates.
He’s hopeful that the updated report due in 2020 will see that number drop to 25%-30%.
He sees four priorities going into his position as the state FCAE coordinator:
1. Increasing the number of ag teachers.
2. Increasing the number of ag programs.
3. More ag school facilities in Illinois’ population base, Chicago.
4. Increasing diversity.
In his previous role as a regional coordinator, he’s enjoyed “the opportunity to share the wealth a little it as far as the mentoring and coaching that I’ve been able to achieve here.
“But there are some things that still need to be done. We need to sustain the ag ed line item (in the state budget), improve the environment for sustainability of high school ag teachers, including building that pipeline as far as recruitment and retention , and then the bigger goal would be to increase ag education enrollment,” Dittmar said.
Now with eight years of high school ag ed teaching, West has not only experienced the state’s most recent budget issues, he’s also endured the resulting salary freezes and limited raises at the local school district levels.
In the past year, he has hosted two student observers and one student teacher as well as a handful of others in previous years. As a result, West has an insightful perspective on the state of ag ed based on his own experience, that of his student teachers and of his high school students.
“I think it’s better than it was just a few years ago, and maybe even better this year than last year,” he said.
He recalled a student teacher from last year who landed “multiple” interviews.
“But that really put into perspective how many jobs needed to get filled. I know that many jobs were filled with people who did not have a teaching degree. We desperately need good, high-quality ag teachers to fill these jobs,” West said.
But based on where his high school students and student teachers have ended up in recent years, he’s also seen many with ag-ed aspirations end up in ag-related corporate or industry fields instead.
“I think if you look at the number of ag-ed graduates and how many of them don’t go into teaching, you’ll find it’s not because they couldn’t find a teaching job — it’s because they found something with better pay,” he added.
Certainly possessing “a passion for teaching” is a particular driver for West, but he pointed out that he’s also had the privilege of working for school districts which value grants and other supplemental revenues.
One grant in particular — the Three Circles state grant — supplements ag-ed teachers’ base salaries.
Other public and private grants help the district acquire mostly classroom and shop items, such as computers or welding equipment.
“Certainly, money isn’t everything, but it is a factor. When you have a family to take care of, you have to take that into consideration,” West said. He and his wife, also an educator, have two children, ages 4 and 7.
With plans to graduate on May 11 “to be exact,” Vanessa Williams has been with West’s class since Jan. 7.
She’s a graduate of Bushnell High School in Fulton County and has been involved with the SIU College of Agricultural Science’s ag ed club and host of other organizations. But she started at SIU intending to become a high school math teacher but switched her major to agricultural education.
She’s also earning teaching endorsement in history and economics and will have minor degrees in agribusiness and agricultural science.
So, why did she change her degree to agricultural education?
“Because my mother’s a teacher, and I’m going to be a third-generation high school teacher. And since my father is a farmer, my brother and I are sixth-generation farmers, so it had to be ag,” Williams explained.
Her father, Dan, has a farrow-to-finish operation with about 50 to 75 sows and farms about 700 acres of corn, soybeans and wheat. Besides her mother, Nancy, her grandparents and an aunt also were teachers.
“I was drawn to education from the background of my parents and how involved they were in the school system and most of the time, you get your summer’s off. You can piggyback that pretty well with your kids. I mainly love teaching people new things,” Williams said.
Her goal is to teach in west central Illinois and be able to continue her work at the family farm. “My goal is to raise hogs and live off that hog money and then put all of my teaching money into travel,” she added.