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Published November 28, 2010, 06:10 PM

Educators: There's a Limited Number of Ag Teachers

The University of Minnesota-Crookston students are studying agricultural education, and a shortage of ag teachers both regionally and nationwide provides the three with an excellent crack at a future teaching job.

By: Johnathan Knutson, Agweek

CROOKSTON, Minn. (AP) — Abbie Westby, Whitney Lian and Jon Hruby aren't guaranteed jobs after graduation. But their chances of landing one are really good.

The University of Minnesota-Crookston students are studying agricultural education, and a shortage of ag teachers both regionally and nationwide provides the three with an excellent crack at a future teaching job.

"Nobody can promise us anything. But it looks pretty good as far as getting a job," says Lian, a Thief River Falls, Minn., student and a freshman at the Crookston school.

"If you enjoy working with young people and agriculture — and if you're looking for a career with a lot of opportunities — ag education is really something to consider," says Lyle Westrum, associate professor of dairy science and agricultural education at the University of Minnesota-Crookston.

The shortage of ag teachers prompted the National Association of Agricultural Educators to launch the National Teach Ag campaign, which seeks to attract more people into the profession.

"There really is a need," says Ellen Thompson, the campaign's coordinator and a former Minnesota ag teacher.

Some school districts, unable to find qualified ag teachers, have scrambled to fill the positions temporarily in other ways, such as the use of otherwise qualified teachers who lack ag training, Thompson says.

But that's not fair to students; the positions need to be filled by ag teachers, she says.

Several factors have combined to create strong demand for ag teachers, she and other officials say:

—Relatively few people have been entering ag education programs.

—Many ag education graduates pursue other opportunities, often working for private companies, rather than going into teaching.

—A large number of ag education teachers have retired recently or are nearing retirement age.

—Ag classes remain popular nationwide. School districts continue to fund ag programs, in part because ag classes can help schools fulfill tough-to-meet science requirements.

Even more ag programs could be started if the supply of ag teachers were greater, says the National FFA Organization, which works through ag education programs in high schools and middle schools.

Rural states such as North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana are not the only states affected. High school and middle school ag programs increasingly are in demand in urban areas, too.

Ag education teachers typically are trained at land-grant universities, says Brent Young, an assistant professor in North Dakota State University's School of Education.

In the Upper Midwest, those schools are NDSU, the University of Minnesota, South Dakota State University and Montana State University.

But ag education programs at those and other schools generally have attracted few students, he says.

For instance, NDSU has been graduating only a handful of ag education majors in recent years, Young says.

The numbers are improving, at least at NDSU — the school now has 32 students majoring in ag education, double the number six or seven years ago — but demand for ag teachers still outpaces the supply, he says.

Most of the nation, not just the Upper Midwest, has a shortage of students in ag education classes, Thompson says.

Nobody seems to have a good handle on why relatively few students are choosing to major in ag education.

What is clear is that already strong demand for ag education teachers is likely to intensify.

Many current ag teachers are baby boomers — the roughly 75 million people born between 1946 and 1964 — and are expected to retire in the next few years.

A survey of North Dakota ag teachers several years ago found that nearly half were considering retirement within the next 10 years, Young says.

Some aging ag teachers probably delayed retirement after the stock market plunge in 2008 and early 2009 shrunk their retirement savings, ag education officials say.

Since then, the market has regained much of the lost ground and at least partially restored retirement savings, which could lead to a flood of retirements in the next few years, the officials say.

Ag educators make one clear thing straight off: Unless you enjoy agriculture and working with young people, don't even think about becoming an ag teacher.

Ag educators also say the profession pays better than some might think.

Nationally, ag teachers on average earn $42.000 annually, not including summer contracts.

Beginning North Dakota ag teachers can earn substantially more than other teachers starting off in the state, Young says.

School districts recognize the value of ag education and often are willing to spend more to attract hard-to-find ag teachers, he says.

He knows of cases where beginning ag teachers in North Dakota earn upward of $40,000 and even more than $40,000, once extended contracts, or contracts that extend into the summer, are figured in.

Katie Shaw, who has taught ag at Lincoln High School in Thief River Falls, Minn., since 2008, says she had little trouble landing an teaching position.

Contrary to what some people might think, ag teachers don't work only with future farmers, she says.

Her students are interested in a wide range of careers, some in agriculture and some outside.

What she likes best about teaching ag is "working with young people and helping them decide what they're going to do with the rest of their lives," she says.

Westby, Lian and Hruby, the University of Minnesota-Crookston ag education students, say they like teaching in general and teaching agriculture in particular.

Westby, a Pelican Rapids, Minn., native, says she's wanted to be a teacher since the ninth grade.

"Then I got into the ag classes, and it was just an instant fit. I knew where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do, and ever since then I've been following that course," she says.

Lian says the hands-on nature of ag teaching appeals to her.

Hruby, a Thief River Falls native, started out as a pre-veterinarian major, but didn't enjoy the classes.

A friend suggested he try some teaching classes, which Hruby did. He really liked them and decided to pursue an ag teaching career.

The bright outlook for landing an ag teaching job after graduation played only a minor role in their decision to study ag education, Westby, Lian and Hruby say.

"I think that happens a lot with teaching. It's not 'Where I can get a job?" It's 'This is what I love,'" Westby says.

That's exactly as it should be, Westrum says.

"But we also want students to realize that there are lot of opportunities in agricultural education," he says.

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Information from: Agweek, http://www.agweek.com

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