Hello readers! My ag teacher friend wrote this blog, and out of concern for their place in the community, we thought it might be a good idea to post it here anonymously. I believe this needs to be said and shared. Please read with an open mind…..
I’m A Bad Ag Teacher
I’ve been teaching high school agriculture for several years now. I love my job immensely. I pour my heart and soul into it. But what has become apparent over time is that I am a bad ag teacher.
Good ag teachers are all about creating people who will advocate for agriculture and tell its story to the disconnected public. I don’t do that.
Good ag teachers are constantly applying for grants and working community connections for sponsorship dollars. I don’t do that.
Good ag teachers believe that agriculture today is pretty awesome and the methods and way of life need to be protected. I really don’t believe that.
Good ag teachers are relentlessly optimistic, believing that the future of agriculture is always bright and a more important focus than the past. That’s really not me.
Good ag teachers teach their students how to perform taxidermy or methods of hunting or fishing. I don’t give a hoot about my students learning those things.
Good ag teachers encourage students to participate in youth apprenticeships or work release so students can get a head start on their careers. I struggle to do this.
So by now you’re probably thinking, “She really doesn’t do all those things that sound important, but she doesn’t necessarily sound bad. What does she actually do?” Well, let me tell you.
I encourage my students to make the most of their free (taxpayer funded) education as they never know where life will take them. I want my students to make the best choices for themselves, but to never turn down an opportunity to learn. Sometimes that takes place at an outside placement, but you can never get those years in the classroom back.
More than hands-on skills, more than agricultural knowledge, I teach my students to think critically and evaluate issues from all sides. Whether it’s wildlife management, raw milk consumption, or animal cloning; we examine data, we look for holes in arguments, and we take the perspective of those we disagree with so we are both better informed and can better communicate about things we care about.
I teach that land management on this continent did not begin with white colonizers, and that the idea of a place without white people being labeled wilderness is preposterous. By now you can probably see I’m a weird ag teacher.
I teach that soil health is paramount to human survival and that the methods we are currently using are not enough to save us. We will have to change our methods to become climate resilient and protect our water supply. This makes me at most a mediocre ag teacher.
I teach that science literacy and consistency is important for all people, and that the natural sciences and social sciences cannot exist without the other. The natural sciences help us understand how the world works, but the social sciences explain how the functions of the world affect the dynamics of human lives. The anti-GMO movement didn’t happen because lots of people just wanted to be willfully ignorant of science, it happened because they had valid concerns about how biotechnology is utilized and there was an us v. them mentality with farmers/scientists/agribusiness and consumers. This makes me a near heretical ag teacher.
I teach that United States agriculture, in all parts of the country, has been complicit in injustices since before we became a nation. Slavery, sharecropping, theft of Native land and methods, migrant and immigrant exploitation, it’s woven into the fabric of how our agricultural landscape today came to be. And despite those injustices, all people in this country have a right to determine their level of involvement and understanding of agriculture. Some want to be involved in agriculture but struggle with access due to centuries of disenfranchisement. Others don’t, and we need to be okay with that. I don’t want to be a computer science expert, I just want my phone to work for me; people in cities (many of whom were forced off the land) just want their food to be trustworthy and safe, we shouldn’t expect them to be able to list which crops have GMO versions or why castrating pigs is important. By now you’ve guessed it, I’m a pretty bad ag teacher.
And most of all, I don’t teach that agriculture exists in a vacuum, that ag is a sacred profession that is to be revered and subsidized more than others, and that there aren’t real issues in agriculture today that are hurting real people (and I’m not talking about animal rights activists). I’m an awful ag teacher.
The official mission statement of agricultural education is “Agricultural education prepares students for successful careers and a lifetime of informed choices in the global agriculture, food, fiber and natural resources systems.” I actually really like this, but it allows for a little too much wiggle room for me. Good ag teachers would argue that the phrase “informed choices in the global … systems” is referring to understanding the place of biotechnology and feeding the world. The bad ag teacher in me sees that phrase and thinks of making sure my students understand the fraught issues with natural gas pipelines, food sovereignty, and animal welfare. That’s why I wrote my own mission statement, “Agricultural education is a holistic education with a radical agenda to empower young people to be inclusive community leaders who will be agents of change in order to create a climate stable, biodiverse, environmentally and socially just, and food secure world; and have the pragmatism, communication skills, and hands-on abilities to make it so.” They’re essentially the same, right?
Most of the ag teachers I’ve met are ridiculously kind and giving people. They love the agrarian life and want to be able to pass it on to future generations, and that’s noble. But in ag education we have a ton of privilege, even if funding issues don’t always make it feel that way. We work with students who are overwhelmingly white and rural, for whom social distancing is more the norm, the police are little more than a friendly nuisance, and the right to live on the land we inherited from our ancestors is never questioned. We also spend a ton of time with our students, often forging deep bonds and helping to shape their futures. That is a privilege beyond measure. But to paraphrase a movie, “with great privilege comes great responsibility.” Since we have those bonds and time with our students, we are in a better position than most to help students understand what’s going on in the world, and what our role in it is. And for our students of color, if we aren’t acknowledging the role and trauma of their people in agriculture throughout time, we are guilty of whitewashing and erasure. If we think ag education is valuable to all students, they need to be able to see themselves both past and present in our story, and not just talk about George Washington Carver because he’s the only black person in ag we know of.
There are days I want to be a good ag teacher so badly. I tell myself I’m going to apply for that grant from a large agribusiness with questionable practices, or I’m going to explain that modern dairy production is the most efficient system ever and leave it at that, or that I’m going to spend time teaching my students to memorize different types of fishing equipment. I could do all of that, it would be easy, the resources are there. But no matter how hard I try I can’t follow through on these things and once again I show my true colors, as a bad ag teacher.