TIFTON — When 26 agricultural education graduates walked across the commencement stage at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College on May 9, they represented the largest group of agricultural education graduates in the entire southeastern United States.
ABAC President David Bridges said he could not be prouder of the accomplishment.
“This spring marked the first time in ABAC’s 111-year history that we awarded the bachelor’s degree in agricultural education,” Bridges said. “The agricultural education program is one of our largest bachelor’s degree programs, and this first ABAC cohort is the largest ag ed cohort in Georgia, and I would say the largest in the southeast.”
Frank Flanders, an associate professor of agricultural education in the School of Agriculture and Natural Resources at ABAC, lays out the data.
“No other college or university in Georgia had those kinds of numbers this year in ag ed,” Flanders said. “Neither does anyone else in the South. The best thing is most of these graduates have jobs. Fourteen or 15 of them have already signed teaching contracts.”
Flanders said a few of the ABAC ag ed graduates are not going directly into teaching.
“Two of the graduates are going to graduate school, and another one is going to New Mexico to be a horse wrangler,” Flanders said. “One wants to do animal shelter management in Florida. I had a friend from Alaska that wanted one of our graduates to come there and teach.”
Ellen Thompson, director of the National Teach Ag Campaign, said, “The demand for agriculture teachers nationwide is strong due to new and expanding programs, and current teachers leaving to explore other opportunities. The opportunities for new graduates and those who want to make a difference by being an agriculture teacher are endless.”
There’s no question. Whether it’s in the heart of Georgia, the frozen tundra of Alaska or the tropical rainforest climate of south Florida, jobs as agricultural education teachers are available. And those positions have been available for a while.
“ABAC is happy to try to end the 30-year drought of ag ed teachers in Georgia,” Bridges said in May 2018 when the agricultural education teacher preparation program at ABAC became fully approved by the Georgia Professional Standards Commission. “For 30 consecutive years, Georgia has produced fewer ag teachers than spots available. We are going to do something about that.”
Flanders said ABAC is well on its way to making Bridges’ prophetic statement a reality.
“The cohort that will graduate from ABAC in the spring of 2020 is our biggest one,” Flanders said. “We could have as many as 35 ag ed graduates. When I was an ag ed teacher, I taught in three different school systems. I was probably the only person who applied for those jobs. Florida has more jobs available than Georgia. A representative from Orange County spoke to the Collegiate FFA last year. He was looking to hire 15 or more teachers just for his county.”
Money is not the problem. Flanders said that starting salaries for ag ed teachers are above average, ranging to the mid $40s per year on a 12-month contract.
“That is a 12-month contract, and there is a lot of night and weekend work involved,” Flanders said. “I never tell them it is an easy job, but most ag teachers just love it. They get a chance to push these students to greater horizons.”
The best recruits for the ag ed major at ABAC seem to be those students who excelled in their FFA chapters in high school, competing in leadership and career development events. However, Flanders said he sees new faces in the program from all walks of life with a wide variety of experiences.
“I tell them come to ABAC, get your degree, get your teaching certificate, and you can enjoy it for the next 30 years and get paid for it,” Flanders said.
ABAC Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Jerry Baker said the ABAC curriculum specifically prepares the graduates for the task at hand.
“The curriculum approved by the Professional Standards Commission was designed with careful attention to producing graduates who are prepared for the diverse middle and high school agriculture programs,” Baker said. “We designed the curriculum to include sufficient technical content as well as the required pedagogy.”
The Professional Standards Commission also approved a certification-only option for ABAC that allows students who complete bachelor’s degrees in other areas to return to ABAC for two semesters to obtain certification in ag education.
“These students usually spend one semester on campus and then one semester practice teaching,” Flanders said. “They need to have a bachelor of science degree in agriculture, but a lot of them out there have that.”
Since ABAC enrolls 4,291 students from 155 of Georgia’s 159 counties, 18 other states and 30 countries, it stands to reason that there are students from all over the nation interested in the ABAC ag ed program.
“That’s one thing I try to emphasize,” Flanders said. “We had ag ed students doing practice teaching all over the state this spring. ABAC is not just a regional institution that covers south Georgia. I have been trying to get these students from Florida and other surrounding states to stay in Georgia to teach. We need them.”