CULLOM, Ill. — Among the goals of agricultural educators is to open their students’ eyes to the industry’s diversity and countless opportunities, many of which would not have been known had it not been for a teacher.
“I don’t think students are always able to get out of the area and understand what opportunities are available to them and that agriculture is not just production — there’s a lot more than that,” said Jenna Baker, Tri-Point High School agriculture teacher and FFA adviser, along with fellow ag instructor Kaylee Shouse.
Baker, who began her teaching career at Tri-Point in 2020 after graduating from the University of Illinois with a degree in ag education, said mentoring students, building relationships and trying to get them on the right path after graduation are her favorite aspects of her job.
“A favorite aspect of teaching is the relationships with students and just trying to get them on the right path when they graduate.”— Jenna Baker, agriscience teacher, Tri-Point High School
Tri-Point’s agriculture curriculum is designed to open both on-farm and in-town students up to a myriad of possibilities.
“Being at such a small school, I really enjoy that we have a diverse set of ag classes because in some schools you only get your intro class, one shop class, one animal class, one plant class, but we have a lot of different things,” Baker said.
“I have intro to ag and this year I teach horticulture and landscaping, which I really enjoy. I teach all of our foods classes. What’s kind of unique to Tri-Point is our foods classes, because we don’t have a Family Consumer Science Department. We have a Foods I (farm-to-fork class) and Foods II (foods science class).
“Foods I is our cooking class, but we also talk about the agriculture behind the ingredients that we cook with. Food science is more like chemistry, preservation, packaging, marketing of food products.
“I teach ag business, which is my first time teaching that, which I’ve enjoyed. We do business management, marketing, finance and then we’re starting job interviews, résumés and we’ve done taxes, budgeting, things like that. In off years, next year, I’ll teach our agriculture biology class, which is more like intensive animal/plant biology, and then we do natural resources and physical science in ag.
“We have veterinary science that’s been pretty popular and successful for us the past few years, and we have a lot of kids who are interested in either vet tech, vet school, that opens their eyes to the agriculture side of that.”
Beyond the books, there is also discussion about possible career options.
“They may not end up going into those careers, but at least they know what’s out there in the more science and business side of things. I really enjoy that,” Baker said.
“There are usually a couple of kids every year whose eyes really get opened and they didn’t know they could do that. Especially around here, they don’t always see a lot of diversity of careers, because a lot of careers here are industrial, agricultural and things like that.”
Like most high school ag and FFA programs, there are more urban than rural students enrolled.
“I’d have to think about an exact percentage. It kind of ebbs and flows a little bit and right now we have almost all non-rural students in the program. We have several who live in the country who are maybe on a rural property, but aren’t in agriculture,” Baker said.
“I know right before I got here, like in 2018-2019, there was a much higher population (of students with ag backgrounds), but now we have a handful of farm kids in here, but we have a lot of nontraditional students. I know in the coming years we’ve got a lot of local farm families who have students in sixth, seventh, eighth grade right now, so that will kind of build back up.
“That definitely does make the dynamic interesting. You have to adjust what you teach a little bit.”
That mix of town and rural students involved in the ag program mirrors Baker’s own experiences that led her to become a teacher in the field.
Baker is originally from Somonauk, where she and her family lived in a subdivision outside of town.
The Baker family farm is in nearby Leland, where her father, uncle and cousin operate the farm.
“I didn’t grow up directly on the farm, but I grew up working on it,” she said.
“When I was younger, we had horses and we were in a trail-riding association there with my grandpa. He had a little of everything. He had a couple of Hereford cattle just kind of as a hobby, but the main thing was soybeans, corn and a little bit of wheat.
“We don’t have cattle anymore, but we had a hog farm when I was growing up and that was my FFA SAE and that’s what I spent a lot of my time doing. We had a couple of wean-to-finish buildings with Yorkshire pigs that I would help with and do mowing and odd jobs there over the summer.
“So, I do have and ag background, not as direct as some people. I wasn’t really super interested in the farm other than just kind of working here and there. I didn’t have the big understanding of ag until I started taking ag classes in high school and that opened my eyes.”
Those high school ag classes, her teachers, membership in the Somonauk Leland Sandwich FFA Chapter and her experience on the family farm set the foundation for Baker’s future career.
“I obviously have the background with the farm and then I took ag classes in high school and kind of jumped right into it. I had some friends who were in it and amazing ag teachers, too, so I kind of just jumped right in,” she said.
“But I actually didn’t want to be an ag teacher for a long time until I was a senior in high school. My original plan was to go into something in ag business like finance or accounting related. I really liked math and numbers.
“Honestly, I just didn’t think that I would be knowledgeable enough to teach all of the things that you have to teach in ag education, but then as I got older, I kind of realized you learn that in college. You don’t have to know everything like I at least thought my ag teachers did and it’s OK if there are things that you’re not as knowledgeable in and that you have to teach.
“I loved FFA when I was a student. I was pretty successful in a few different things and I wanted to continue that, as well, and give other students the opportunities that I had.
“As I got older in high school, I realized that I really liked working with younger students and so I went to U of I all four years in ag education and I never changed that.”
An ag teacher has the unique task of having many of the same students all four years of high school.
“We’re able to see them grow and be there for advice and help guide them along toward their post-high school plan,” Baker said.
“That’s why I enjoy teaching high school versus any other grade levels is because I really enjoy getting students ready for what life after high school because a lot of them struggle with that.
“So, a favorite aspect of teaching is the relationships with students and just trying to get them on the right path when they graduate.”
Baker had her own mentor when she arrived at Tri-Point in 2020.
Diana Loschen served as Tri-Point ag educator and FFA adviser since June 1988 and received numerous honors throughout her career as did many of her students at the state and national levels.
“My first year here was her last year. The original intention when I accepted the job just before COVID had happened was that was a transition year,” Baker said.
“So, she was going to teach me to do all of the things, well then a lot of those things didn’t happen. We weren’t going to the national convention. We didn’t have an alumni auction. We didn’t do a lot of the things we normally do.
“I was still really thankful for working with her in that transition, but I feel like I’ve been a first-year teacher every year because there’s always something new.”
Tri-Point, with an enrollment of about 115 high school students, has had a long history of commitment to agricultural education and FFA.
The success of that commitment is evident in one of the classrooms with more plaques and other awards filling every inch of the wall from top to bottom.
That commitment continues with the school board hiring two ag teachers.
“We’re really lucky to have two ag teachers here because it’s been one for along time,” Baker said.
That trend of having two ag teachers on staff has continued in other districts as a way to offer more opportunities for students. It also provides an option to share teachers among departments.
“Kaylee and I split some things with the science department. Kaylee teaches an environmental science class and we give and take here and there to kind of make it worth it, so to speak, to such a small school, but we are really lucky to get that and that helps, as well, and gives more opportunities to the kids.”