New ALEC hires aim to boost preparation and support for teachers in Nebraska ag | Nebraska today
The Department of Agricultural Leadership, Education and Communication at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln announced on April 6 important steps to strengthen the training and support of agricultural teachers.
ALEC hired two agricultural educators – one in northeast Nebraska, the other in the Panhandle – to support agricultural teachers in their areas. In addition, a new tenure-track faculty member at ALECwith first-hand experience as a high school agricultural teacher and FFA advisor, will focus on improving teacher preparation and other support strategies.
University and Nebraska FFA executives announced the new recruits at a press conference on East Campus on Nebraska’s first day FFA State Convention. The three new hires will work to improve and retain current agricultural educators, attract new teachers to the field, and better meet the needs of agricultural educators of all experience levels across the state.
Monty Larsen, who has extensive experience as a rancher and high school agricultural instructor, will assist agricultural teachers in northeast Nebraska. The satellite ALEC faculty member in the Panhandle will be Troy White, a Ph.D. who comes to Nebraska from a faculty position in agricultural and agriculture-related teacher preparation STEM studied at South Dakota State University.
Becky Haddad, a Ph.D. who currently teaches agricultural education at the University of Minnesota, will serve as a tenure-track professor in ALEC. She was a high school agricultural teacher for five years in her native Minnesota.
“We’ve seen in Nebraska unprecedented growth in new agricultural education programs…and many communities wanting to add teachers, add programs,” said Mark Balschweid, ALEC Head of Department.
In 2010, the number of Nebraska high schools with an agricultural instructor was 133. Now the number is 202. Some schools have two agricultural teachers and a few have three.
The number of high school agricultural teachers in Nebraska stands at 230. Yet supply is falling short of demand — statewide, 64 positions have opened up so far this school year, with 21 remaining vacant.
“We’re already hearing from superintendents and superintendents across the state saying, what can we do to attract applicants?” says Matt Kreifels, associate professor of practice in ALEC specializing in teacher preparation and leadership.
The constraints of covidThe -19 crisis was one of the factors causing the shortage of agricultural teachers. Another is the wide range of educational expectations for agricultural teachers, who in many cases are expected to be competent in everything from the latest developments in agricultural science and crop management to woodworking and welding. . And it’s especially important for beginning teachers to have mentorship and support tailored to their specific needs.
Haddad discovered these challenges during her five years as a high school agricultural teacher and FFA counselor in Minnesota. As a “one-person department teaching everything from welding to Minnesota wildlife to animal science, giving students a taste of everything,” she found the support and contribution of the community were essential to help the program succeed. Such collaboration, she said, “provides a richer environment for everyone involved when you have a whole team on board and not just you.”
Preparing teachers has been one of Haddad’s main goals in his current position at the University of Minnesota. Another focus for her: strategies to help agricultural instructors care about their mental health by properly balancing the stresses of work and home. The strategies, she said, are aimed at helping agricultural teachers “find a more acceptable work-life balance, manage your whole curriculum, think about the things I choose to take on, and recognize those things like choices”.
Having the two new satellite Farm Educators can provide multiple benefits, ALEC leaders said.
“These satellite educators will have the ability to work with teachers to find out what the needs are, what challenges they face, and then connect with the experts here on campus and in research centers to figure out how we can best serve and meet those needs,” Kreifels said.
White said, “We have the time and the flexibility to come in and ask, what do you need and hopefully meet that need for as many teachers as possible.”
Melissa Bonifas, an agricultural teacher at Blue Hill High School in Webster County, knows Larsen and said her extensive experience — as a rancher and an agricultural teacher with three school systems — will be especially valuable in helping beginning teachers.
“I think it will be very helpful to have someone who has been in the business for a while and who has handled all types of situations,” said Bonifas, who sat on the search committee that interviewed. candidates for the ALEC professorship. “It’s going to be phenomenal for people to be able to ask questions and get real help when they need it.”
Both Larsen and White have a strong background in agricultural science, considered a strong asset to their roles.
“We will work to have STEMbased on an agricultural curriculum that teachers can follow and modify,” White said. “I hope this will help free up their time and give them quality resources that they can browse and adapt to what they need in their local classroom.”
Larsen’s duties will include presenting programs at Nebraska Extension’s Haskell Agricultural Laboratory in Concord, about 15 miles north of Wayne. The 550-acre site includes extensive cultivated land, agricultural and livestock facilities, an arboretum, pollinator gardens and beehives.
“I’m really impressed that for a facility of this age, it’s really been very well maintained,” Larsen said.
Opportunities, he said, include hosting events on the latest developments in the science curriculum, as well as career days that can introduce students to agricultural research.
The site, he said, “is an outstanding facility that could be a hub” for the Northeast Nebraska Education Pact, whose members include 21 school districts as well as the College of Agricultural Sciences and of Natural Resources of Nebraska and other institutions of higher education.
Career opportunities in modern agriculture are very varied, ALEC the executives said, with about 300 career choices in all. In addition to direct production farming, examples include agriculture-related business management, software development, laboratory analysis, environmental studies, and high school agricultural education.
“If we’re talking about preparing people for hopefully careers in Nebraska, this program is number one,” said ALEC graduate Matt Dolch, Syngenta district manager for sales of NK Seeds in Lincoln.
The opportunities are there for urban youth as well as rural youth, said Dolch, who served on the search committee that interviewed candidates for the ALEC professorship.
Bonifas, the agricultural teacher from Blue Hill, agreed.
“If the child is interested in agriculture, there is a career for him,” she said.
The new initiatives that ALEC continues, Kreifels said, is of particular importance in providing the department with “the personal power, the human capacity, to support beginning teachers and current teachers to help them stay in the profession.”
With these new recruits and the strategy behind them, “it’s as if we are at the start of a new era in agricultural education in Nebraska.”