Turning point: Career shifts to ag education

CULLOM, Ill. — First-year ag teacher and Tri-Point FFA Chapter co-adviser Kaylee Shouse entered the University of Illinois on-track for a career in elementary education.

However, those fond memories of her time in FFA and ag classes in high school were always on her mind, and she soon shifted career gears.

Shouse, a graduate of Richland County High School in her hometown of Olney, shared her story during a break at Tri-Point High School, where she shares ag instruction and FFA adviser duties with Jenna Baker.

Shouse earned her bachelor’s degree in 2020 in ag education. She student-taught at Tri-Point not knowing at the time that she would be hired there full-time two years later after earning her master’s degree in ag education at the U of I and spending a year teaching elementary school in the Champaign area.

“You see that aha moment, the moment when something clicks and it just makes your heart swell as a teacher because you just know how hard they’ve been working.”

—  Kaylee Shouse, agriscience teacher, Tri-Point High School

Shouse and Baker student-taught at the same time under the guidance of longtime ag teacher and FFA adviser Diana Loschen.

What led you into turning to a career as an ag educator?

Shouse: I am a nontraditional ag student. I do not come from an ag background. I actually got involved in ag and FFA later in high school.

So, I didn’t spend a ton of time in FFA and ag classes as a high school student, but when I finally did get involved I was hooked. I loved it. I love learning about agriculture. I love doing FFA stuff and supporting our chapter.

I really enjoyed my ag teacher and I had a lot of friends in the program. I wish I would have started sooner in high school, but at that time I was planning to go into college in elementary education.

I hadn’t considered ag ed, I think just because I felt like my time in my high school program and my lack of a traditional farm background was kind of intimidating as far as thinking about being an ag teacher. I just felt like I wasn’t necessarily qualified for that and didn’t really think about it.

Once I got to college and started my major in elementary education, I realized I would rather work with an older population of students, that I really enjoyed high school-age students and didn’t think elementary education was necessarily my pathway and I actually didn’t know if education was going to be, either.

What was the turning point in your decision to take the leap into ag education?

Shouse: I remembered how much I enjoyed learning about plant science specifically in my high school ag program and decided to study that. I was enjoying it, but I was really missing the teaching and working with the students aspect of it. I ended up joining a sorority, 4-H House, at U of I which is an ag sorority and there are several ag teachers across the state that were part of that sorority during their time at U of I.

It was one of my friends specifically that I talked to and told her that I really loved plant science, I’m enjoying it, but I missed teaching and I missed working with students. She said, “Why don’t you just go ag ed?” I said, “I can’t do that. I’m not qualified for that. There’s no way.” And she said, “You can definitely do that,” and gave me the kick in the pants that I needed.

So, with her encouragement and some encouragement from some other friends, as well, I ended up switching my major into ag education and I loved it.

It was very intimidating at first, but once you get into it, especially through the program that I was a part of in our class, there was just a lot of support and there’s a lot of opportunity to learn and I really enjoyed it. I’m very glad I made the switch.

As with many high schools, most students enrolled in ag classes and FFA have non-farm backgrounds, so do you provide your own perspective and experiences that led to this career?

Shouse: It’s just exciting knowing or at least hoping that being an example that you don’t have to be a traditional student to go into agriculture and that you will be accepted into that community if you’re willing to learn and grow.

Hopefully, kids will feel inspired or at least more confident maybe than even I did when I was in their position as far as deciding what to do; “maybe I could pursue agriculture or agriculture education,” or whatever it is that they might be thinking about, “because I got to see someone else in my life do that.” So, it is a very special position to be in, for sure.

What courses do you teach at Tri-Point High School?

Shouse: I teach basic agriculture science, veterinary science, advanced animal science, ag mechanics and construction. Jenna and I teach intro to ag together. Some units I teach. Some units she teaches. I also teach environmental science, although that is currently not an ag class here.

I have a junior high ag rotation class. We don’t have an official junior high ag program, but I go at the end of our “B” days. We’re on a rotating block schedule and do a rotation class with them. So, I’ve seen all of the junior high grades. Right now, I have seventh grade.

The junior high class is brand new this year. It’s basically an exploratory ag class. So, students don’t get graded on anything. We’re doing fun activities related to agriculture and kind of use it as a recruitment tool. It had a lot of success.

I think our high school intro to ag class size next year has pretty much doubled from this year, which is awesome. Next we may have to teach separate sections of intro to ag instead of teaching together, which is a good problem to have. It is really exciting. The exploratory class has worked out very well.

What are some of your favorite parts of teaching?

Shouse: There’s a lot. Classroom-wise, it’s always exciting to see students who have been struggling with something, like maybe there’s a certain topic that we’ve been working on and they’ve just been really struggling with it, it’s very satisfying to see them finally get it.

You see that aha moment, the moment when something clicks, and it just makes your heart swell as a teacher because you just know how hard they’ve been working. To see that finally happen and to see the fruits of their labor come to fruition is just great.

What are some of your highlights in your role as an FFA adviser?

Shouse: FFA-wise, I’m always encouraging students to try things that they wouldn’t normally try to step out of their comfort zone. I think especially now that’s extra intimidating for a lot of students after just going through COVID and missing out on a lot of social interaction for the past couple of years and just being able to go out and do.

So, especially this year getting back to normal and getting to see students take a leap of faith and try something that they wouldn’t normally be comfortable with, even if they don’t end up being that great at it, just seeing them step out and be willing to try something new is always really encouraging.

It encourages me as a teacher to try new things, too. If they can step out and do this, then I can be brave and try this lesson I’m not sure about or do this.

So, it’s really encouraging in that aspect, but it is also very exciting from an FFA standpoint when you have a team of students that’s worked really hard and you get to see that success.

I’m in charge of livestock judging and I don’t really have much of an animal science background, I have much more of a plant science background, so I’ve been learning a lot of animal science this year and livestock judging specifically. We’ve been getting a lot of support from a local family, the Hummels.

The kids have been working so hard and they’ve had a lot of success and it’s just been so exciting to get to see that, especially knowing that they have a teacher that’s still learning right along with them, but just to see all of their hard work paying off and to see their focus and determination is really exciting. I know it makes them excited, too.

There’s nothing better than when you tell your student they ended up winning this category or their team placed in this position and they weren’t expecting that. To see that excitement just really brings you a lot of joy as a teacher, for sure.