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University of Nebraska hires new faculty to boost ag teacher prep

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LINCOLN — The University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Agricultural Leadership, Education and Communication department on Wednesday announced major steps to strengthen agricultural teacher training and support. ALEC has hired two ag educators — one in northeast Nebraska, the other in the Panhandle — to support ag teachers throughout their region. In addition, a new tenure-track faculty member at ALEC, with firsthand experience as a high school ag teacher and FFA advisor, will focus on enhanced teacher preparation and other supportive strategies.

UNL and Nebraska FFA leaders announced the new hires during a news conference on UNL’s East Campus during the first day of the Nebraska FFA State Convention. The three new hires will work to improve retain current ag educators, attract new teachers to the field, and work to better meet the needs to ag educators of all levels of experience all across the state.

Monty Larsen, with wide-ranging experience as a rancher and high school ag instructor, will help ag teachers in northeast Nebraska. The satellite ALEC faculty member in the Panhandle will be Troy White, a Ph.D. who comes to Nebraska from a faculty position in ag teacher preparation and ag-related STEM education at South Dakota State University.

Becky Haddad, a Ph.D. currently teaching agricultural education at the University of Minnesota, will hold the tenure-track faculty at ALEC. She was a high school ag teacher for five years in her native Minnesota.

“We’ve seen in Nebraska unprecedented growth of new ag education programs in the state, and lots of communities wanting to add teachers, add programs,” said Mark Balschweid, the ALEC department head. In 2010, the total number of Nebraska high schools with an ag instructor was 133. Now the number is 202. Some schools have two ag teachers, and a few have three.

In all, Nebraska’s number of high school ag teachers totals 230. Yet, supply is coming up short of the demand — statewide, 64 positions have opened up so far this school year, with 21 remaining unfilled.

“We’re already hearing from superintendents and principals from across the state saying, what can we do to attract candidates?” says Matt Kreifels, an associate professor of practice in ALEC specializing in teacher preparation and leadership.

The stresses from the COVID crisis have been one factor behind the ag teacher shortage. Another is the wide-ranging instructional expectations for ag teachers, who in many cases are expected to be skilled in everything from the latest ag science developments to crop management to woodworking to welding. And it’s especially important for beginning teachers to receive mentoring and support tailored to their specific needs.

Haddad learned about such challenges during the five years she was a high school ag instructor and FFA advisor in Minnesota. As “a single-person department teaching everything from welding to Minnesota wildlife to animal science, giving students a little taste of everything,” she found support and input from the community to be vital in helping the program succeed. Such collaboration, she says, “provides a richer environment for everybody involved when you have a whole team on board and it’s not just you.”

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