By Beth DeHoff
The school year is winding down, the students are getting a little “squirrely,” and, let’s face it, by now you are silently jamming to the tune of Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out for Summer.”
Before you start going through your inventory, shutting down the greenhouse for the summer, making SAE visits and stocking up on shop supplies for next year, take some time to plan what could be the highlight of your summer: professional development conferences.
State and regional conferences are planned all over the nation this summer, and the big, national conferences are just around the corner for fall. (See below for more info.) Take a look around to pick the best conferences for you, and then develop a plan of attack to make sure you get the most (educational and fun!) you can out of them.
Once you’ve selected your conference choices, take a good look at the agenda. What are you most interested in? What do you know the least about? Find the sessions that satisfy your passions and your curiosity, and then go in with an open notebook. Leasa Guderra suggests you try to open something else, as well: your mind.
“A positive attitude helps, and don’t act like a teacher,” she points out. Guderra is the assistant director for secondary agricultural education for the Maryland Agriculture Education Foundation, and she is a former agriculture educator. “Have an open mind, a positive attitude, and be ready and willing to learn, not teach.” In Maryland, the state conference is this summer, as well as the regional “6 by 6” conference in Massachusetts.
University of Missouri’s John Tummons is on the other side of the professional development conferences—he plans them. Hundreds of teachers will congregate July 20-23 for the Missouri Agricultural Teacher’s Conference in conjunction with the Missouri Career and Technical Educators Conference. The state also plans summer technical institutes on agronomy, forestry, horse production, small engines, agricultural mechanics, turf grass management, Lincoln Arc welding, food science labs, Missouri Young Farmers Tour, topics in agricultural education, and greenhouse management. Each institute runs two to five days and provides attendees with information and training to help improve their subject knowledge.
Tummons recommends that teachers use the conference days to get busy. “Get involved! Summer conferences are an opportunity to network with other teachers, to learn new strategies for classroom instruction and to work together as a profession to plan for the future,” he says. “The more workshops, meetings and activities a teacher can attend, the more benefit they will receive.” Tummons also recommends that teachers volunteer to serve as an officer or committee member for their teacher organization.
While a summer conference can offer new information to even the most seasoned teacher, Tummons points out that beginning teachers can benefit enormously from such an event. “Missouri offers special workshops for beginning teachers at our summer conference. We see it as a chance to be welcomed into the profession and meet informally with their mentor, state staff and other new teachers. We also use it as a chance to reveal critical information that beginning teachers need to know. The connections they make with other agriculture educators will serve as a support group for them as they enter the profession.”
Hosting a conference
What if you’re already involved up to your neck, and are helping to plan a summer conference? Guderra and Tummons have tips for you, too. Guderra makes sure to allow at least one evening for teachers to mingle and have dinner on their own. They also have a night for retired teachers, and they start the whole event with a team-building exercise and picnic.
Once the conference is underway, Guderra and her team plan it just like the three circle model of agricultural education. One circle provides solid classroom ideas through “make and take” workshops on plants, animals, mechanics and other agriculture subjects. Another provides real-world instruction on CDEs. “The older teachers try to educate younger teachers on what they can do. The teachers actually work on CDE projects in hour-long workshops and rotate among them. We’ve even been out in the field doing soil techniques,” Guderra says. “For our spring judging competition, participation went up by 100 students, and we think it’s because teachers feel prepared after the conference.” Teachers also work through SAE record books and fill out an application as part of the third circle.
Looking toward fall
Your sweaters may be in storage, but summer is also a great time to plan conferences for the coming school year, before the rush of the fall grading period descends. The national FFA convention will have a number of new features, most notably a new “Teacher’s World” area. Other programs to think about include the Agriscience Teacher Ambassador Program and the Agriscience Integration Institute.
The national FFA convention, held October 21-24 in Indianapolis, is always buzzing with opportunities for students. But the 2009 convention will also have a number of new features – just for teachers. “We now have three classrooms for teachers at the convention on agriscience, animal science and teacher development workshops,” says Larry Gossen, National FFA Local Program Success team leader. “This year, those classrooms will be in a special location, surrounded by Career Show exhibitors specifically focused on the teacher. The teachers can now come to one place to see textbook vendors, multimedia companies and other business that want to talk to teachers, not students.”
Teacher’s World will give teachers a place of their own at the convention to receive professional development, talk to sponsors about educational materials for their classroom and browse teacher resources. “We’re also going to have an Internet café, so they can check e-mail, grab some coffee or water and sit and network together,” Gossen says. This new area will be at the west end of the Career Show.
“The Advisors’ Planning Guide II will come out in August, and it will have everything teachers need to know to prepare for the convention. The schedules and classrooms will be listed, and I’d suggest that teachers plan ahead for time that their students can do things on their own while the teacher goes to Teacher’s World for professional development and classroom resources,” Gossen says.
Agriscience Teacher Ambassadors and Integration Institute
Teachers with a desire to further develop agriscience options at their school may wish to apply for FFA’s Agriscience Teacher Ambassador program. The week-long summer conference in Maryland is sponsored by DuPont. “We spend a week grilling teachers on science principles, how to integrate science and how to teach using a true inquiry-based approach,” Gossen says.
The July ambassador program is by invitation only, and applications for the 2010 program will be available by October at the convention and online. “The application process has gotten very competitive with only 18 slots available nationwide,” Gossen says. “It’s hard to select the teachers that attend, so we encourage teachers who aren’t selected one year to continue to apply each year. We look for teachers with a strong knowledge of or background in science who have made that a part of their classroom and are looking for help to make their classrooms more science-based. If teachers like that apply for this program several times, they probably have a good chance of making it sooner or later.”
Once teachers have graduated from the ambassador program, they are expected to be ambassadors for agriscience in their state. Many teach topics at their state conferences, and some get involved in the Agriscience Integration Institute. This program is sponsored by DuPont and Pioneer, and it involves a week-long August training in Iowa. “We bring together teacher educators at universities with states’ departments of education staff members and our teacher ambassadors,” Gossen says. “The focus is on how to develop a state-wide plan for implementing agriscience into the curriculum.”
So go ahead—find someone to mow your lawn, set the water system on auto pilot, have parents supervise livestock projects, and take off for a few days of professional development at a summer conference in your area. Then, when you get home, start making your plans to attend Teacher’s World at the national convention this fall.
With all of the opportunities available through FFA and agricultural education, there’s no shortage of professional development events. Make some friends and learn new ideas from your peers at a conference—even in the lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer.