PLEASANT PLAINS, Ill. — College students graduating with a degree in agricultural education have a lot of job opportunities.
“This year we have 40 students who graduated in December or will graduate in May,” said Jennifer Waters, District 3 program adviser for Facilitating Coordination in Agricultural Education.
“This spring we have 73 openings for ag teachers and only 42 are currently filled,” Waters said. “There are nearly two jobs for every candidate, which is great news for the students.”
Forty ag ed graduates annually is about typical for Illinois colleges that train ag teachers, which include the University of Illinois, Illinois State University, Western Illinois University and Southern Illinois University.
“So far, 17 had been hired to teach ag, three have taken jobs outside of teaching in the ag industry, two have taken jobs out of state and the remaining 18 are looking at available positions,” Waters said.
“These kids are in a really good position to negotiate what they are going to get for contracts and extended contracts,” she said. “They can be choosy about what school that want to go to.”
Currently, there are 355 ag programs in Illinois schools.
“No programs are closing for next year that we are aware of,” Waters said. “We have added seven new programs for next year and 18 schools have added a teacher to their program.”
Nine ag teachers in Illinois are retiring at the end of the current school year and 19 teachers are leaving the teaching profession.
“Our teachers are not staying long enough to retire. They’re leaving and going to industry positions,” Waters said. “It used to be they’d become a superintendent or principal and stay in the education world, but now we’re seeing more people leave education altogether.”
Some of the open ag teacher positions will be filled by people who apply for an Educator License with Stipulations.
“We are looking for people not trained as teachers to become teachers,” Waters said. “Sometimes that’s somebody who thought they might want to be an ag teacher and went a different route or sometimes it’s a local person who wants to help out in the school because they have experience in agriculture.”
The growth of middle school ag programs is also increasing the demand for ag teachers and FFA advisers in Illinois.
“There are 99 middle school ag programs in Illinois this year,” Waters said. “Seventeen of these programs have a teacher designated only for middle school ag while the other 82 programs share a teacher between the high school and middle schools.”
Waters taught middle school students when she was a high school ag teacher 10 years ago.
“It was a feeder program to get them ready to come in my high school program,” she said. “We have schools that offer programming down to fifth grade, but most commonly it’s seventh and eighth graders.”
To assist teachers as they start their careers, FCAE provides teacher professional development.
“We’re doing a lot of hands-on mechanics things this year,” Waters said. “We recently had a workshop with 15 teachers that included both student teachers and veteran teachers.”
The teachers worked in the woodshop and built things for the day.
“It gave the teachers a chance to get their hands dirty and use the tools,” Waters said. “A lot of teachers are not trained in that area, so we’re trying to address that from not only a safety issue, but to get our teachers comfortable so they can teach these classes.”
Another focus has been on welding skills.
“In college there are so many classes on theory and education and I had only one semester of ag mechanics,” Waters said. “You do each thing for about two weeks, so you never really get good at it.”
Plus, Waters said, many schools are losing their industrial arts programs.
“Now the ag programs are starting to pick up family consumer science classes, too, so they are teaching a lot more food courses,” Waters said.
“We see a lot of CNC type items being made and some schools are printing their own banners for winning contests,” she said. “Some of the sections are making their own plaques on CNC machines and there are schools that are making products for fundraisers, so it’s cool to see what they can design and make.”
The FCAE team is focused on helping to fill the open ag teacher positions, as well as providing support for ag teachers across the state.
“This year there were two ag programs that had three teachers within the year,” Waters said. “That amount of turnover for those kids is not good.”
Waters goes to schools to provide on-site assistance.
“Without having training on how to be a classroom teacher, the learning curve is pretty steep and stressful for the teachers,” she said. “Some of them have never had experience with FFA and they might also have to meet the requirements for students with special needs, so it’s a lot.”
Another trend that is occurring in Illinois high schools is the growth of school farms that include land, barns and animals.
“As school districts are seeing other school districts do this, it’s picking up in popularity,” Waters said.
For example, the Greenfield school district recently purchased on old pig buying station, which had sat empty for many years.
“Part of the adventure for the kids was digging through all the stuff left behind,” Waters said. “Now they have chickens, rabbits, cows and pigs and it’s really cool to see how the community has come together to support them by doing things like dropping off bags of feed.”