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Texas ag teachers prepare for new school year

By Julie Tomascik

The last weeks of summer are coming to an end, and a new school year will begin later this month. A classroom full of wide-eyed students awaits Texas agricultural science teachers, who are preparing for the school year as their annual professional development conference concludes today in Corpus Christi.

More than 2,000 teachers, vendors and guests were in attendance for the weeklong conference.

“Professional development is important for ag teachers,” said Ray Pieniazek, who is serving alongside Barney McClure in preparation for his new role as executive director of the Vocational Agricultural Teachers Association of Texas. “We have teachers who are getting ready to begin their first year and teachers who have been in the classroom for more than 40 years. Each teacher can find something beneficial through the conference.”

McClure will retire as VATAT executive director on Aug. 31, and Pieniazek will assume the post on Sept. 1.

Throughout the week, teachers attended workshops on various topics, including floral design, principles of agriculture, students’ learning styles and agricultural mechanics. Other workshops included sharing ideas for curriculum and hands-on projects and activities.

Texas Farm Bureau (TFB) staff also presented a workshop.

More than 90 teachers were present in the workshop that covered youth and adult opportunities in Farm Bureau, as well as educational outreach and hands-on activities.

“We discussed the opportunities in Farm Bureau for teachers and students,” Mia Balko, TFB director of Youth and Urban Outreach, said. “By working with these agricultural science teachers, we can reach more students and adults and share the message of agriculture and Farm Bureau. This workshop also gave us a chance to highlight our resources, advocacy efforts, the knowledge of our staff and more.”

During the workshop, TFB staff led hands-on activities related to soil sample collection, ethanol and corn production. Staff also gave away two coolers and a digital classroom microscope.

TFB exhibited a booth in the trade show, showcasing the various programs and resources available through the organization.

Although the workshops and exhibits are a key part of conference activities, Pieniazek noted the networking and mentoring opportunities available to teachers are just as important.

“The school year is just around the corner and this conference helps gets teachers excited and prepared for the new year,” he said.

But the profession struggles with retention.

About 57 percent of Texas agricultural science teachers have five to 10 years of experience and only about 25 teachers have 30 to 45 years of experience, according to Pieniazek.

A shortage of teachers is also an issue.

“There around 1,400 school districts that offer agricultural education programs. Those school districts vary from one ag teacher to several ag teachers,” Pieniazek said. “Some school districts are considering expanding their Career and Technical Education programs and other schools are thinking about creating those opportunities. The demand for teachers will continue to grow.”

Currently, there are 28 open agricultural science teaching positions in Texas.

TFB and County Farm Bureaus can help both new and experienced teachers with agricultural education efforts, especially as those opportunities expand in urban and suburban areas.

“The growing relationship between ag teachers, Farm Bureau staff and County Farm Bureau leaders strengthens agricultural education,” Balko said. “Some of the ag teachers don’t have a production agriculture background, so building connections with area farmers and ranchers and with Texas Farm Bureau is beneficial for their students and school district.”

TFB is an FFA Foundation Four Star Corporate Sponsor and provides a $6,000 scholarship to the Texas FFA state president and a $4,000 scholarship to the first vice president. TFB also provides staff and resources for helping with FFA’s elite training programs, like the Texas FFA Ford Scholars and the LEAD teaching experience.

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