Beginning agriculture teachers from Eastern Oregon schools gathered at Wallowa High School on Oct. 7 to learn how to make “the toughest teaching job at the school” a lot easier.

Wallowa was the site for the Eastern Oregon Regional Career and Technical Education (CTE) Consortium Ag Teacher Training in part because of the $480,000 CTE revitalization grant Wallowa High School received in 2013 to upgrade its Agricultural Sciences and Technology program.

“We relied on the advice of our industry partners in determining what pieces of equipment to buy,” said Wallowa High ag instructor Jeremy McCulloch.

Thanks to the modern upgrades and commercial partnerships, students taking CTE courses can come out of Wallowa High School with marketable skills.

That’s the goal of the new CTE financing program being rolled out by the Legislature in the coming years.

“Eight years ago the legislature and Oregon Department of Education recognized there was a large workforce hole that the traditional college path wasn’t filling,” said ODE Regional Coordinator Stefen Maupin.

“For three bienniums we had a financing program that revolved around CTE and Science/Technology/Engineering Mastery (STEM) courses. Now we have a new money stream: Secondary Career Pathways,” Maupin said. “Ag teachers need to know how to access this money.”

All three Wallowa County schools currently are listed for funding of $10,000 each, but other opportunities are being created to improve CTE program offerings.

For instance, Secondary Careers Pathways is actively seeking completed ideas and requests for Industry Recognized Credentials programs for high school students.

“We began to ask, ‘What set of courses can you offer a kid that sets him or her up for a high wage/high demand job?’” Maupin said.

From that questioning, credentialed courses are now being created.

The courses reach and prepare students who previously had been all but ignored by the all-students-to-college ideology of the past.

Some student simply don’t thrive in the college environment. Many learn better and faster with a different teaching style.

“I literally had kids that would spend four to five classes with me just to survive the high school experience,” recalled 29-year ag teacher Dave Yost of Joseph. “They needed that hands-on.”

Yost says he’s always been a hands-on learner, and he understands that his students are no less intelligent or driven than their college-bound classmates. They simply know what they want, and that often includes immediate work outdoors, on the farm and in agriculture or manufacturing.

“I know there are brilliant students with great math minds, but if you take a kid that needs to build a barn and put all those math formulas into his individual project — he’s got it,” Yost said. “That was me, too.”

Toughest job in school

Yost is now a volunteer mentor for new ag teachers in Dayville, Prairie City, Cove and Ontario through another innovative offering being rolled out through the Secondary Career Pathway program.

Another mentor, Les Linegar, who taught agricultural technology for 35 years at Ontario High, will be helping teachers in Ontario, Vale, Harper, Burns, Jordan Valley and Nyssa.

“I had so much enjoyment teaching and I want them to have that excitement and fun,” Linegar said. “The first year as an ag teacher is traditionally very scary and so hard. Ag is a unique teaching situation; you are a teacher, FFA advisor and community organizer. It’s one of the hardest jobs at the school.”

First-year teacher Kristy Riggin of Harper added another big job to the list Linegar mentioned.

“What I didn’t realize is a lot of an ag teacher’s job is just applying for grants,” Riggin said.

Her ag students in the tiny town of Harper cannot even dream of the equipment that Wallowa has unless she writes some compelling grant applications.

“There’s no way I could have any of that without a big grant. We were very fortunate that Nyssa donated the frames of green houses to us and I’m going to use Perkins money and other grants to finish our greenhouse project.”

Nicole Merchant, a third-year ag teacher from Prairie City, has been through her first tough years without a mentor and is relieved to both have the help now and know her cohorts will have it.

“It’s going to help keep younger teachers in the ag teaching business because it is a pretty exhausting career — you’re not just dealing with students but with community members, industry, competitions and more,” Merchant said.

Keeping teachers is key because schools may not get an automatic second chance if they overwhelm and then lose their first teacher — there aren’t enough ag teachers to go around in the first place.

“Last year there were 16 positions and only eight ag teachers graduating from OSU,” said student teacher Kimi Starner of Wallowa.

As a result, many small schools take applicants like Cassidy Corrigan of Jordan Valley, who has a masters degree but no teaching degree, and require them to get their teaching degree within three years.

Two more aids to ag teachers were presented by Enterprise High teacher Stephanie Schofield and Joseph Charter School teacher Toby Koehn.

Schofield helped new teachers learn to use a student assignment tracking software program called Ag Experience Tracking.

“An example of organizational complications I deal with is that I literally have enough students in ag leadership for a whole extra class, but they’re scattered through numerous classes — a few in each,” Schofield said. “With this program I can track and they can pull together all the assignments they need for their leadership projects.”

And students who don’t like to write are required to keep journals in this program. That writing provides them with an expanded outline for other assignments.

Getting students to simply do the journaling is a step toward a larger “buy in” on doing the work to prove proficiency, Schofield said.

“I am 95 percent confident that there are kids in everyone’s programs that could be state proficiency winner when they build that ‘want to,’” she said. “They don’t know yet what this work can get them — they just have to do it. The more they do it the more they have buy in. If you can explain that if they do this and do a good job it translates on the farm, in the shop, helping get a loan for farm improvements or cattle ... it translates,” she said.

Koehn introduced the new teachers to another bit of technology that made their work not only easier but provided ag students with valuable comparison tools.

He discussed a program called Judging Pro, which provides short videos presented by industry experts on judging market animals. The videos give good and bad examples of conformation, but also a visual of the actual finished market product (chops, steaks, etc.).

“I think the greatest value of this program is that it helps you keep up on industry standards, which is important if you want to win at state fair,” Koehn said.

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