Illinois Farm Bureau Is Addressing the Ag Teacher Shortage
Upon college graduation, Grace Foster faced job opportunities so plentiful that she could apply to teach agriculture in any region of the state – or the nation, for that matter.
Demand for agriculture teachers throughout the United States outpaces supply as more schools embrace the importance of agriculture programs to student education. During the last five years in Illinois, schools posted an average of 81 ag teacher openings annually, with only 24 Illinois graduates per year to fill them.
Further reducing the candidate pool, about 40% of those ag ed degree holders find themselves lured to graduate school or a higher-paying profession in the agriculture industry.
See more: A is for Agriculture in the Classroom
“Teaching is hard; there are lot of times I wish I could have a much easier job and a more thankful job with better pay,” says Foster, entering her fifth year of agriculture instruction at Rushville-Industry High School in Schuyler County. “I think that’s why we are in the teacher shortage situation that we are. There are so many other opportunities that are more lucrative and less stressful.”
Efforts have emerged in the last few years to narrow the salary discrepancy and reward agriculture teachers, including the Illinois Farm Bureau’s (IFB) Agricultural Education Teacher Grant Program. IFB founded the program to boost personal income for new agriculture instructors, thus far granting Foster and 15 other teachers up to $10,000 in their first five years of teaching agriculture.
“Agriculture teachers are motivating and inspiring people to choose agriculture as a career,” says Susan Moore, director of the IAA Foundation, the charitable arm of IFB. “This is a way to create that incentive and also to show the ag community is behind them.”
Financial Support Amps Up
With job openings more than triple the number of college graduates, Illinois schools fill positions with out-of-state candidates, teachers moving between schools and provisional teachers, or industry professionals instructing students while pursuing their licenses, says Dean Dittmar, coordinator for Facilitating Coordination in Agricultural Education (FCAE).
Identifying the agriculture teacher shortage, the Illinois State Board of Education in 2017 formed a task force, whose recommendations included support for the Three Circle (FFA & SAE) Grant. The grant adds another month of compensation to contracts for agriculture teachers, who frequently work nights, weekends and through the summer with FFA activities, student Supervised Agricultural Experiences (SAE), conferences and classroom facilities.
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82% of Illinois public schools outside of Chicago’s Cook County and collar counties of DuPage, Will, Lake, Kane and McHenry have an agriculture program.
IFB’s new teacher grant program launched around the same time. Within the last three years, the average agriculture teacher contract lengthened to an average of 11 months. Likewise, first-year agriculture teachers are starting in the mid-$40,000 range, according to FCAE.
“These grants help publicize the profession, increase the teacher salary and help us get more students in agriculture education because those salaries are competitive to other industry and degree majors,” Dittmar says.
In fact, Illinois universities expect to graduate 40 agriculture education majors in May 2021, the most in nearly 30 years.
Making a Difference
Foster was among the first recipients of IFB’s Agricultural Education Teacher Grant for her demonstrated commitment to agriculture education, financial need and future program goals. The Farm Bureau program accepts up to four new teachers per year for the grant, which incrementally increases over five years for a total of $10,000. The program will award $320,000 to 32 teachers during its 12-year cycle, Moore says.
Since 2017, the program has already supported 16 teachers and maintained a 100% retention rate.
Raised in suburban Chicago, Foster’s nontraditional route to agriculture education started with her father’s passion for welding and machinery. She also loved animals and raised sheep and cattle at a farm 15 minutes from her home.
“The first reason I considered ag education was because I liked different aspects of ag and didn’t know what exact field I wanted to go into,” Foster says. “I saw the difference that my high school welding teacher made in my life, and the lady who opened her farm to me taught me so much. I felt like I wanted to do the same, and I saw the value in it.”
IFB sees the value, too. The grant program originated from one of its Strength with Advisory Teams, better known as SWAT. These teams of Farm Bureau members meet to identify action items for the organization.
“I genuinely appreciate all the efforts that the Illinois Farm Bureau is doing, the grant program is doing and FCAE is doing,” Foster says. “Knowing that there are people who appreciate what you are doing can make or break this job sometimes.”
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While high schools commonly employ full-time agriculture teachers, Illinois Ag in the Classroom (IAITC) provides agriculture lessons tailored to all grade levels, pre-K-12.
Contact your county Farm Bureau office for access to the program’s free, classroom-ready materials, which align with state learning standards. Many counties employ agriculture literacy coordinators, who can deliver these resources and help teachers at any grade level use agriculture as an avenue to teach science, social studies, language arts, nutrition and more. While one might mistakenly associate the lessons with younger grades, there are agricultural literacy resources for teachers from elementary school all the way through high school.
A popular resource, Illinois Ag Mags share relevant information about Illinois agriculture, offer ideas for classroom activities and showcase ag careers in a colorful four-page format. Find Illinois Ag Mags on apples, beef, corn, soil, pumpkins, pizza and more at agintheclassroom.org. IAITC is supported by the IAA Foundation as well as various commodity groups and private donations.