By Michael Rubino
You’re an agriculture teacher—you have a challenging job that, at times, probably feels like two when you add in your responsibilities as an FFA advisor. Staying current in multiple areas of the field isn’t merely a suggestion, it’s a requirement.
With all of the day-to-day demands of teaching, repairing, coaching, building, growing, creating, etc., professional development might be the last thing on your mind; however, it should be one of the first.
“If you want to be the best possible teacher, you need to make an investment in your professional development because it benefits not only you, but your students,” said Robin McLean, agriculture teacher and FFA advisor at Northern Burlington County Regional Middle School in Columbus, N.J.
McLean, who has taught for seven years and worked for the state FFA for four, earns about 100 to 115 professional development credits per year. New Jersey requires teachers to earn 100 every five years. “I guess I do it because I’m a life-longer learner, and, as a teacher, I want my students to be life-long learners, too.”
Ellen Thompson, an agriculture teacher and FFA advisor for eight years at Sauk Centre High School in Sauk Centre, Minn., quickly learned that putting in extra hours for professional development is actually a time-saver during the school-year.
“In my classroom, I teach a variety of things,” she said. “I have to be everyone from a vet to a master gardener to an expert in forestry. All in one day. Professional development is really the only way to make that possible. It’s that bump you need sometimes. It will remind you of why you became a teacher.”
According the National Quality Program Standards, agriculture teachers should have a professional growth plan, enhance their skills by taking college credit courses or through professional development opportunities, and join a related state and national education association. Both Thompson and McLean belong to one such organization, the National Association of Agricultural Educators.
Founded as the National Vocational Agricultural Teachers’ Association, the 8,000-member NAAE is 61 years old. In recent years, however, the organization has given itself a make-over, putting professional development atop its list of priorities and developing a significant presence on the Web. Though its regional and national workshops still provide members an opportunity to learn new skills and swap old tricks with peers, some teachers are finding the NAAE’s online offerings an equally valuable professional development tool. Given advances in social networking and a growing library of Webinars, the best part is that the resources—like agriculture teachers and advisors often have to be—are available on-demand.
Communities of Practice, the NAAE’s online teachers’ lounge, offers agriculture educators links to classroom resources, a place to collaborate on projects, RSS feeds, e-mail notifications and a discussion board.
Thompson and McLean are two of the site’s most prolific participants.
“It’s pretty easy to type up a question and post it,” said Thompson. “[Communities of Practice] is probably the biggest, coolest thing we’ve got going on right now. It’s priceless. I bet I check the site at least five times a day.”
It’s not traditional professional development, admits Julie Fritsch of the NAAE, but it serves the same purpose. “We’re letting our members be the experts,” she said. “Often, these folks are the only agriculture teacher in their school; it’s not like there are three or four others for them to call on with a questions. So, we see this as a great opportunity for our members to network and help each other when things come up. Agriculture teachers have always been known as a helping bunch—we’ve just tried to facilitate that.”
Last year, the NAAE began offering Webinars—online seminars that can be participated in live or downloaded later—where teachers can earn professional development credit. Fritsch said most of the courses are taught by technical experts from the organization’s corporate partners. Five Webinars are archived, but more are planned.
“We had a very good response for the first go-around,” said Fritsch, noting that several drew 150 to 200 participants. “It’s just going to be a matter of time that people learn this is something that we offer and get comfortable with the technology.”
McLean, the life-long learner from New Jersey, is sold. “I just downloaded the whole [Webinar] series but haven’t actually worked through them yet,” she said. “I can’t wait.”