Ag programs face shrinking supply of teachers
By LACEY JARRELL
The matter-of-fact way Rolland Aschim carded and sheared his Columbia sheep revealed that he hadn't forgotten the lessons he learned 49 years ago as a 4-H and FFA member in the Amity, Ore., school district.
In June, Aschim completed a 36-year a career as a Western Oregon agriculture teacher, inspired by Lloyd Mills, the ag instructor who introduced him to animal grooming nearly half a century ago.
"He got me involved in FFA activities, and he really got me to open up," Aschim said.
It is a common cycle in agricultural education -- teachers passing on knowledge to students who in turn teach the next generation.
But Aschim's experience has become more rare as fewer men and women enter the field of agricultural education. Last year only four students graduated from Oregon State University's agricultural education program with master's degrees, according to Greg Thompson, OSU's agricultural education and general agriculture department head. Only three of those students opted to pursue a career in teaching.
One is Christina Lorenz, who teaches in Glide.
"I love being around people and I love agriculture, so it was a perfect combination for me," she said.
Thompson said he believes one obstacle keeping students from becoming teachers is the notion that the field has a poor job outlook -- but that is not the case at all.
"I get calls every day from all over the U.S.," he said. "There are a lot of desperate people out there who are looking for teachers."
The other obstacle, Thompson believes, is that many potential students have the misconception that agriculture only encompasses growing produce and animals. He is quick to point out that teachers also coach students in professional development and leadership skills, from writing a resume to managing self-directed projects.
Lorenz said that it wasn't until she met Tim Eggleston, her ag teacher at the Banks, Ore., high school, that she realized she might be interested in becoming a teacher.
"He raised my awareness about the scope of agriculture. I realized I didn't have to be a farmer to teach," she said.
As of April 2012, schools statewide had 109 agriculture programs, Thompson said.
But last year alone, 19 Oregon ag programs were in transition, meaning the teachers retired or transferred to positions within the agriculture industry, according to Reynold Gardner, Oregon Department of Education agricultural education and natural resource education specialist.
During the 2013-14 school year, 10 OSU students will participate in the one-year master's degree program, meaning the demand for teachers will still exceed the supply.
Students entering the program can hold a degree in any ag field, although the four he typically sees are animal science, ag science, business management and horticulture. At the university, students learn teaching skills, as well as the hard sciences.
Gardner said that, in part, schools have lost instructors in the last few years because jobs in the industry offer more lucrative salaries and a more reliable work schedule.
"Ag ed teachers have always been attractive candidates for other industry positions because they have academic skills and the ability to teach a variety of subjects," he said. "Ag teachers are known for going above and beyond ... but they don't do it because they have to, they do it because they have a passion for ag and like to see kids succeed."