SCALES MOUND, Ill. — Although it was not her first career choice, Lisa Oellerich found her calling when she started teaching agriculture and advising the Scales Mound FFA Chapter.
“I’m an animal science major and teaching was not on my radar, not even a little bit,” said Oellerich, who has taught at the northern Illinois school for 14 years.
Oellerich spent 12 years at a feed company working with dairy nutrition and marketing.
“They wanted to change my position to being on the road all the time and I had a young daughter at home, so I joined our landscape business,” she said.
When Oellerich started substitute teaching, she realized she loved it.
“The previous ag teacher had left mid year, so I was doing a long-term sub and they asked me to take over the ag teacher position,” Oellerich said.
“I had the support of the board members to be hired as the full-time teacher,” she said. “And the next year I worked through Southern Illinois University to get my teachers certificate.”
Scales Mound has recently completed a school-wide construction project that included adding a gym, increasing the industrial arts tech education program, remodeling a few rooms, adding a commons area and concession stand and building a stand-alone building for the ag program, as well as a greenhouse.
The ag building has a main classroom with a kitchen, a lab area, an area to hold large animals and a small animal room.
“The small animal room has a dog wash station,” Oellerich said. “For the animal training class, we offer dog washing and the students will also clip the nails of the animals.”
In the greenhouse, students run a hydroponic lettuce system and the lettuce is served to the students in the school cafeteria.
Currently, the greenhouse is filled with annuals, perennials and vegetable plants that will be sold through the chapter’s plant sale.
“We have found the online plant sale is the place to be,” Oellerich said. “I opened it last Sunday and half of our inventory is already sold.”
Although Scales Mound is a small community, Oellerich said, residents are very supportive of the ag program and the FFA chapter.
“Our school has 76 students and 58 of them are FFA members,” she added. “I have very few ag production kids, less than five since Scales Mound pulls from a couple resort areas.”
FFA members are heavily involved in their supervised agricultural experience projects.
“We run close to 95% SAE active and these projects are the building blocks to students’ individual awards,” Oellerich said.
Students that take the ag science class earn their food handlers safety certificate.
“There are lots of restaurants in Galena, so these students are ready to get their first food service job,” Oellerich said. “In the summer, 100% of my juniors and seniors have jobs that range from food service, making fence, working as lifeguards at the resorts or mowing lawns and doing landscaping.”
FFA members also like to compete in several contests including job interview and vet science.
“Most years we take a team to state in vet science,” Oellerich said. “Land use is near and dear to my heart and this year our team placed second at the state contest.”
Although the number of female ag teachers in Illinois has been increasing for many years, the 2021-2022 school year marks the first time there are more women teaching ag classes than men.
“There are 15 schools in Section 1 and now there are two male teachers, one of which is retiring this year,” said Oellerich, who is also serving as the president of the Illinois Association of Vocational Agriculture Teachers.
Oellerich attributes this growing number of female ag teachers to increased respect for women.
“That has opened the doors for young women to make it their career choice,” she said. “You’re seeing that shift in many ag companies, as well.”
One of the area veterinarians is a female.
“She’s one I bring in a lot for classes,” Oellerich said. “I like the students to see a couple of women working cattle.”
Teaching ag classes, Oellerich said, is an amazing career.
“I didn’t know what I was jumping into,” Oellerich said. “I was involved in FFA in high school, but the girls didn’t get to go to the shop when the boys went. My ag instructor left the girls in the classroom.”
“I had an FFA jacket, but it wasn’t anything like what my students experience,” she said.
However, Oellerich had a female 4-H leader who pushed her to excel.
“She believed in me 100%,” Oellerich said. “She’s the person I emulate when I push my kids to do things I know will benefit them.”
For example, job interview skills or meeting the public.
“I want them to do things that will make them good employees and good people in the future while building on the skills their parents have given them,” Oellerich said.
“This is my career No. 3, but it is the one I will definitely end my work years on,” she said.