Since most agriculture educators lack circus experience, they’re left to their own ingenuity when it comes to juggling. Yet all agricultural education programs are required to keep three balls (or circles) balanced and moving—classroom/laboratory, supervised agricultural experience (SAE) and FFA. The challenge is to keep them all moving forward without…well, dropping a ball!
Cory Wedel is in his 11th year of teaching at Stratton High School in Stratton, Colo. He is the only agriculture teacher in the small high school of 60 students, 35 of whom are members of the FFA chapter. In addition to chapter and classroom work, Wedel’s students participate in SAEs and have competed at local, district, state and national levels. When asked how he does it all, he has a quick response: “My first thought is…I have no idea.”
Upon reflection, Wedel credits organization and planning for part of his success in balancing his program; and his 10 years of experience and some awesome students account for the rest of it. “I didn’t jump into everything at once; I kind of worked it all in gradually,” Wedel says. “Just don’t bite off more than you can chew. Kevin Keith from national FFA told us that just because FFA offers 25 programs, that doesn’t mean your chapter has to participate in all of them. Pick the ones that work best for your program, your school and your community.”
Beth Dickenson teaches agricultural science and technology in a small Oregon high school, where she arrived three years ago to start an agriculture program. She relies on her community and started an FFA alumni chapter last year. “I have used many of those community members as award presenters (sponsors) at the banquet, practice judges for leadership CDE practices, and as guest speakers/tours for my classes,” she says. “Another idea I’d like to try is to have a group of community members that would be willing to help make SAE visits.” She advises teachers to be willing to ask for help from the beginning. “I’m a bit of a control freak, but I am working diligently to give that habit a rest,” she says. “I’ve learned that delegating ideas and projects to my student officers and committees is better for all. Just because it’s not my way doesn’t mean it’s not right.”
Cody Weber has been teaching agriculture for five years, three of which have been at Limon High School in Limon, Colo. Today, 35 of the 120 students at the school are FFA members. He says that providing all elements in the three circles of agricultural education is the primary goal of his growing program. “When you have all three circles going on, students get to learn and serve others. Each circle complements the others,” he says. “The hardest part is keeping all three components equally important.” Weber relies on chapter officers, each of whom coordinates a leadership event for FFA members and an educational event through the school year, taking much of the FFA workload off the teacher. Weber also has added an office within his advisory council titled “SAE coordinator.” This adult volunteer keeps a list of possible SAE opportunities and submits it to Weber twice a year. “It has already been very helpful in placing students in areas they are interested in,” he says.
Weber suggests teachers consider the expectations of students and adults in the community and avoid trying to create a perfect program quickly—an impossible task. “As time progresses, start brainstorming with the advisory committee, administration and other influential people about where to start improving; and, if you haven’t had experience with the National Quality Program Standards (available on ffa.org), this is a great tool to use for program improvement,” he says. “Once you have isolated an area to improve on, figure out a way to make it a responsibility that others can take over or help with. Repeat this process often, but make sure you have enough time available to make it progress continuously, while trying to lead a ‘non-workaholic’ life!”
Wedel says he has used 11 years of teaching to help him set priorities and delegate. “If officers are truly officers, they should be doing the majority of the work for the chapter. When I was a young teacher, I was the main officer,” he says. “Now they do more of the work, and I’m in the background. It should be little me, big them.”
All three teachers agree that offering leadership opportunities to students and volunteers can do more than improve your program. It can make your juggling act more manageable and leave some time for juggling some other important priorities—like your family, friends and other interests. “We have to be smart about how we manage our lives, not just our careers,” Wedel says. “Narrow things down and choose what’s essential. And try not to compare yourself to others who have been doing this a lot longer than you!”