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Taking it a Step Further

 National FFA Convention Provides Unique Alternative Learning Environment

A few years back, John Jones made a deal with his wife.

In the interest of preserving marital harmony, Jones, an agriculture educator at Glen Rose High School in tiny Malvern, Ark., promised he’d slow down a bit. He’d been teaching for the good part of two decades, which meant plenty of time away from home at leadership and state conferences and conventions.

Tell you what, Jones told his wife: I’ll start going to the national convention every other year instead of every year. But there was a catch, of course. He’d have to go to the national convention if one of the kids won a state contest and went on to compete at nationals. It was his duty.

Jones hasn’t missed a convention yet.

Mostly, because he knew what his wife apparently didn’t: 23 years of experience has taught him that a trip to the national FFA convention is the ultimate carrot—a tried-and-true motivation experience that opens doors for both advisor and student. The event lasts just a few days, but its impact is felt year-round. Missing one isn’t an option.

“Teaching is about 99 percent motivation,” says Jones. “To be honest, I’m not real good at that, and it’s hard to teach when you can’t do that. But, if I can take them on these trips, I can teach.”

He realizes trips can often be a hard sell to school administrators, particularly in trying economic times. However, the national convention is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for most of his students, many of which, he said, come from the lower socio-economic end of the scale.

“One year we heard the President of the United States, George Bush,” says Jones. “One year we heard [Pro Football Hall of Fame Quarterback] Terry Bradshaw. And there are career and college shows out there recruiting kids for scholarships, jobs and awards. We—teachers and parents—preach to them all the time about going to college and the opportunities that are out there for them. The convention lets them see if for themselves—see what’s out there.

“You might not be in class,” he continues, “but, to me, that’s a pretty good week of school.”

In addition to opening a window of the world for his students, Jones says it also makes them feel like part of something bigger than themselves.

“We’re from a rural area, and, like I said, our kids typically come from a lower socio-economic background,” says Jones, “but there’s nothing like seeing them in Official Dress, just like the other kids. There are no barriers there. They don’t feel poor. They fit in. From my standpoint, when you see all those kids in Official Dress saying the pledge, that’s pretty awesome for me. Motivating, too.”

T.J. Holder, a teacher and advisor from McAdory High School in McCalla, Ala., feels fortunate that he’s never had to explain the teaching value of national convention to school administrators. It sells itself, he says.

“I think they see the after-effect it has at the end-of-the-year banquet, and even during the school-year and throughout the school,” he says. “In fact, I just had the principal come up to me. He had one of my students run an errand for him. He said he’d trusted that student to do just about anything. I think that says a lot about what we’re trying to accomplish.”

Like Jones, Holder uses the trip to expand his students’ horizons. He takes a group to the national convention every year. One year, he says, they fly since most students have never been on an airplane. The next year, they’ll charter a bus, so they can see the changing landscape of the country and stop at notable sites along the way to the convention. The learning starts before they even set foot in Indianapolis.

“It’s so important for kids to get out of their hometowns, leave the state and meet kids from other parts of the country,” he said. “You can’t give them that kind of stuff in the classroom.”

The message, both men say, is not to let schooling interfere with your students’ education.

“I don’t have to fight that battle, and I’m glad,” said Holder, “But I’d fight it all day if I had to. Going to the convention gives these kids lifelong experiences they wouldn’t otherwise have.”