From livestock shows to agricultural mechanics to welding, agricultural education classrooms are being led by a growing number of women educators. What was once a predominately male role has evolved to include a host of women tackling the profession.
“When I started teaching ag education in the late ‘70s, I was fortunate that the men around me were supportive,” explains Dr. Billye Foster, associate professor of agricultural education at the University of Arizona. “Some of the women I knew going into other fields found it much harder. Women in the military, law enforcement and medicine were ostracized more. Fortunately, the field of agriculture, itself, has had a tradition of helping others; the men around me reached out to tutor and mentor me. Even when they weren’t too sure about women in the ag classroom, they did help open doors for women.”
“When I first started in the ‘80s,” adds Kathy Conerly, an agriscience teacher at Zachary High School in Louisiana, “there were male teachers who wouldn’t talk to me. Today, men and women are definitely on a more equal basis. Now we treat one another with mutual respect.” Although much has changed since Conerly began teaching, the problem isn’t completely gone; however, it has gotten dramatically better.
“In the past, women have generally taught the agricultural sciences, such as horticulture,” explains Linda Chase, agricultural mechanics teacher at Abilene High School in Abilene, Kan. Nowadays, more women are teaching content across the agricultural spectrum.
Chase, herself, has firsthand knowledge, as she has worked hard to make it in the “ag mech” world. She recently completed the Schools Excelling through National Skills Education (SENSE) training, becoming a certified welding educator. Chase was the first female agriculture teacher to go through the program and pass the final exam on the first try.
Both Chase and Conerly sympathize with the challenge of taking over a male teacher’s legacy. “The first couple of years can be hard,” explains Chase. “I learned to not take anything a student said to me personally. I smile, have a good sense of humor and laugh it off. You have to be patient until those students graduate and you get your own students in your classroom.”
Conerly agrees, adding, “After I got my own group of students, they didn’t even realize that there weren’t many women ag teachers.”
Chase’s hands-on approach also helped her overcome student perceptions. “I’ve had to let them know my knowledge and prove it to them. I teach from the center of things. I get just as dirty and messy as they do.”
With the rising number of women agriculture educators, has come a corresponding rise in young women taking agriculture courses. “I find that I now have more girls taking welding and agricultural mechanics,” says Chase. “They are exploring careers in the field and being influenced by the increasing number of women role models.”
Women agriculture educators also face another challenge—balancing a career with raising a family. “You will never see a man, eight months pregnant on the job,” quips Foster. “Women just have a different row to hoe—different responsibilities and concerns than their male counterparts have to deal with.”
Chase agrees. “Lots of women have to put their career on hold to balance the demands of family. You have to have good support at home to juggle the time away for area events or state and national conventions.” Both Chase and Conerly took infants on the road with them in order to attend livestock shows and conventions.
Foster sees this as the biggest call to change in agricultural education. “Young educators who leave after 5-6 years of teaching to start a family rarely return to the classroom. The field of education is rapidly changing. In just a year or two the changes can make it difficult for a teacher to return. We are losing young women by not finding ways to help them stay or return.”
“We continue to try to organize our teachers the way we did 50 years ago,” says Foster. “Today the challenge is convincing school boards and the administration to find ways to utilize talented educators. We need to find ways to allow teachers to job share or be hired part-time so that they can stay engaged.” Later, when that teacher is ready, she can easily assimilate back into full-time teaching.
Working with pre-service teachers, Foster focuses on how to be the best educator possible. Today’s agriculture educators need to build relationships in the community. “Teachers are really building a mini-corporation in their community. Ag educators need to know where the part-time jobs are, what cool summer internships are available and when applications are due for scholarships,” explains Foster. “These are important pieces for both women and men teaching agriculture today. These pieces can make or break your career. Each educator needs to deliberately build a strong community network because the network, itself, helps you be a better teacher.”
“If the community is still questioning whether a woman can teach agriculture classes, this is all the more important. Having a strong community relationship and network can eliminate potential problems later,” concludes Foster. “I encourage new teachers to focus on building a strong program. It takes time and commitment – and it’s worth it!”
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