Harris guides ag curriculum expansion

NORMAL, Ill. — Normal Community High School made a commitment to an expanded agriculture program and hired its first full-time ag teacher in 2014.

It was a good move, as the number of students taking ag classes increased from 75 to 80 the first year to about 200 students this school year. An FFA chapter was also chartered.

At the center of this expansion is a commitment by Normal Community’s school board, the administration and ag teacher Liz Harris who was hired to the post after graduating from the University of Illinois with an ag education degree in 2014.

From that initial ag program start through today, Harris and her students have earned numerous honors from their peers and nationally.

“We started our FFA chapter and we have many competition teams. This year our agricultural sales team was reserve champion at state and our veterinary science team won the state contest this year,” Harris said.

The Normal FFA Chapter was recognized by National FFA as the 2020 Premier Chapter for Building Communities with its “The Beauty of Reusing” project. The FFA chapter won the honor for collecting used tin cans and other used items to make flower pots for Mother’s Day gifts in 2019.

“I’m from a family where agriculture is what we’ve always done and to see students who don’t have that background have that same passion for the industry that I love is really rewarding for me as a teacher.”

—  Liz Harris, ag teacher, Normal Community High School

In 2020, Harris was Region IV recipient of the Ideas Unlimited award by the National Association of Agricultural Educators.

The contest is designed to give members and opportunity to exchange classroom, SAE, leadership and other teaching ideas, sponsored by National Geographic Learning/Cengage Learning. Region IV includes Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Kentucky, Ohio and Michigan.

Harris also successfully applied for a $10,000 grant for “Making a (Green)house a Home” from the Beyond the Books Educational Foundation for 2021-2022 to renovate the schools’ rundown greenhouse.

Meeting Students’ Needs

Course offerings at Normal Community have transitioned over the last eight years to meet the needs of the students, as well as growing to the point that it was necessary to hire a second ag instructor.

“When I got here the program was still focused very much on production agriculture courses, but in order to reach the students that we have, including a very urban group of students that didn’t have a lot of background in agriculture, we have more agriscience-based course,” Harris noted.

“We teach a lot of classes that fulfill a science credit. We’ve really been growing our animal science pathway. We have a veterinary science course and just this year we started offering a dual credit animal science course with Heartland Community College.

“I have a lot of students who live in the middle of the city. Some of them come to our program and don’t even know how they exactly got here and then they find something that they can latch onto and that they can find a passion in. That’s what provides me with a lot of the joy that I have working in this position.”


Harris grew up a farm near Saunemin, where her family raised corn, soybeans, pigs and horses and she was involved in 4-H and Pontiac Township High School’s FFA Chapter.

“I came from a family where agriculture is what we’ve always done and to see students who don’t have that background have that same passion for the industry that I love is really rewarding for me as a teacher,” she said.

“That’s what we need in the agriculture industry. We know that we don’t have enough people that grew up on farms in order to provide for all the jobs that are available. So, we have to fill those positions somewhere.”

Career Path

Harris had what she calls a “very interesting journey” to become an ag teacher.

“I was that student my senior year that still didn’t know what I wanted to do. I know what I liked doing. I know I liked working with animals, but I knew I didn’t want to be a veterinarian,” she said.

“I finally ended up realizing that I liked working with people and it was my high school ag teachers, Jesse Faber and Parker Bane, who said, ‘Why don’t you look into this, why don’t you take a couple of classes in college and see if it’s something that you’re really interested in and see if it’s something for you?’

“That’s really just what kind of made me take off to start doing this and even when I started teaching I questioned whether it was the right path for me until I started working with students. I realized that I have a passion for not only educating kids about agriculture, but also developing them as a person and being that positive influence for students.”

She graduated from Joliet Junior College with an associate degree in agriculture and then went on to the U of I for a degree in ag education.

Her favorite part of teaching is all about the students.

“I really love seeing students set goals for themselves and helping them reach those goals. Whether that’s in agriculture or whether that’s just in life, I love helping students be better people. I’m the one place in the school where I think I could teach kids all of the different things that they need to be a functional adult,” Harris said.

“We teach communication, we teach employability, we do the content of course, but it’s all those extra things. Somebody says, ‘they never taught me how to do that in high school.’ We’re teaching those things.

“It’s always the students that come back or send me a message five, 10 years down the road, it’s the ones that you wondered if you made an impact on, but they’ll say, ‘It was you that helped me do this,’ or ‘It was you that first led me to this job or this career.’

“That’s been really rewarding and it’s just now getting to the point where I’ve been teaching long enough to start having those stories.”