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 Perspectives​​: Engaging all Students in all Parts of Agricultural Education

Every agriscience teacher must be abundantly clear about the vision and mission of his or her agriscience program. Equally transparent should be the responsibility we agriscience teachers have towards the industry of agriculture and the development of youth.

When I began my career as an agriculture teacher, motivating students was just as challenging as it is now. What is different thirty years later? Nothing! We still promote leadership, agriculture and hard work. So how do we recruit, retain and maintain a consistently productive student clientele? 

We must constantly engage students by meeting their needs!

Let me tell you a little bit about myself. I teach in an urban program located in the center of Tucson, Ariz.—a city that is quickly approaching 1,000,000 people. Our student population consists of 60-70 percent Hispanic students, many of whom do not speak fluent English. The majority of our students come from low-income families that are highly mobile. Our marketing tool is livestock and livestock-related activities. 

Amphi High School was able to keep its Agriscience program because I was allowed to think “outside of the box.” FFA would, of course, continue to be an important part of the total program; however, the SAE had to be the engaging force. As our school population was changing, our program kept pace and changed right along with it.

The Goal Must Always be to Engage ALL Students
The tendency is to choose those students who we feel fit the mold and continue to work with and develop their interests. Do not fall into that trap! The reality is that circumstances will not allow us to reach everyone that first time. Our job is to stay the course until they become engaged or are no longer within our reach. Never give up!  Most students (and their parents) want to succeed. Both the program and you as the teacher gain credibility and respect when efforts are made for full inclusion.

But the underlying question is, “How do we engage our students?”  

You must provide all the students in your program the same opportunity not once, not twice, but as many times as it takes to get them involved. Remember, we are competing with a number of other attractive offers for their time: TV, video games, cell phones, sports, the couch, girlfriends/boyfriends, work schedules, other electives and family.

Engaging all students requires inclusion. One cannot participate if the activity becomes exclusive!

One date on the FFA calendar, one line on the school and/or class marquee, a monthly newsletter, an ad in the school announcements, and a reminder in class are not sufficient to convince students that they belong and should participate. Remember, most of our students today are far removed from traditional agriculture. To help them prevail over the “farmer” stigma, they must rise above the sometimes negative connotation of belonging to the FFA. We are requiring these students to cross cultures in order to feel they belong. We must empower our students to overcome all these obstacles and become totally engaged in our total program. 

Here are some tips on engaging students:

-  Always welcome and reward engagement, even if it is trivial. As the saying goes, “Learn to crawl, before you learn to walk,” right?
-  Encourage students to use as their SAE anything that vaguely resembles work and/or agriculture; as long as they are developing skills, commend them for it.
-  I engage students by allowing them to earn a one-half credit of elective for carrying out a year-long SAE.
-  Agricultural skill development engages students; however, growing “die-hard” fans of the industry of agriculture is more engaging.
-  Don’t intimidate new students by requiring the FFA Official Dress in order to participate.  Persuade them first. Once they are satisfied and encouraged, they will ask you how to get it. 
-  Fun, excitement and relevancy engage. Avoid monotony as you deliver the standards.  Remember, we cannot teach the standards to an empty classroom!
-  Being positive engages. Conversely, gender, religious and race-related comments often disengage. 
-  Engage students by promoting 21st Century soft skills (leadership, responsibility, accountability, flexibility, adaptability, initiative, self-direction, social and cross-cultural skills, and productivity) along with The Pillars of Character. 
-  Engage students by allowing them to carry out community service SAEs.   
-  Engage students in FFA activities by conducting them during the school day. Students no longer have to worry about transportation and other scheduling conflicts.
-  Winning is fashionable, but not always engaging. 

I wish I could tell you that 100 percent of our students were engaged and that the above recipe works 100 percent effectively, but I cannot. I can tell you, however, that my biggest challenge will always be student engagement, and these tips are a good start in the struggle to engage. My humble advice to you is, “think outside the box,” and aim at engaging students, parents and the community.