Agricultural Education for All is a joint partnership of the National Association of Agricultural Educators and the National FFA Organization with the goal of ensuring all in agricultural education feel welcome, safe and celebrated as their authentic selves. Every month in New Teacher News and Teach Ag Times, we will feature some of the outstanding teachers making a difference and creating inclusive, diverse and equitable programs for their students.
Who/what inspired you to be an ag teacher? I was first inspired to become an ag teacher after I served as a state FFA officer during my senior year of high school in 2015-2016. Before that year, ag ed was nowhere on my radar, my life ambition was dedicated on becoming a landscape architect. During that year, however, I had the opportunity to travel across the state to meet with various agricultural industry officials and present leadership workshops across dozens of schools. After my year of service, I came to the realization that it wasn’t the idea of practicing the concepts I learned in my ag ed courses that excited me, but teaching the concepts and working with youth that did instead. When I enrolled at NMSU after graduation, I added a secondary major of Agricultural and Extension Education to my primary major in Horticulture Science (before dropping that major and picking it up as a minor two years later), and the rest is history.
What motivates you to continue to teach ag? What I really love about ag ed is that it combines my two passions, agriculture and working with youth. I find it so refreshing to share my passions with my students and see them absorb the material like sponges, as well as the relationships that I have created with them. Just the other day, I spent some one-on-one time with a student who came by the classroom and was having trouble with the whole virtual learning concept. After I helped him out with his issues, we spent the next half-hour talking about different life experiences and what our goals and aspirations are for the future. This one student’s life story was one I’ll never forget, and I’m sure that he felt as though he had an ally to help him in his journey. Our relationship was strengthened significantly after that one conversation, and as a result, I feel extremely motivated to continue to work with students, both inside and outside the classroom. I will forever be an advocate for the agriculture industry and will continue to do all I can to teach the future of agriculture and impact the next generation of agricultural leaders.
What advice do you have for new teachers to create an inclusive and safe environment for your students to be their true, authentic selves? Listen to what your students tell you. Take an interest in their lives and the things that they do, because that will help you in learning how to work with these students and provide them with the correct tools to be successful in and outside of the classroom. Always be conscientious about the things you say and do, because unfortunately, we might unintentionally cause offense to some students. By having an open line of dialogue with your students, it will help them feel safe in the classroom and comfortable amongst their peers. Also, model the expectations that you have for them in the classroom. If a certain rule applies to the students, then it should apply to you as well. Never create those double standards, for it will sour the students' view of you and hurt your relationship with them. But above all else, be there for them and be willing to literally go over a cliff for your students, because somebody needs to advocate for them and make them feel that they are valued and accepted, no matter their background.
What advice do you have for aspiring ag teachers about being their true and authentic selves in the classroom? Why is that so important? Do not be afraid to share the parts of you that make you unique. Regardless of whether you are of a racial minority, have a physical or developmental disability, a member of the LGBTQ+ community, or belong to a specific political affiliation, chances are there’s a student out there who identifies within the same groups. But, by suppressing our backgrounds and painting ourselves in the image of a “perfect” ag teacher, we are essentially encouraging our students to do the same. Why do we do this? Because we’re constantly conforming to societal norms and not recognizing that there’s progress to be made by being authentic.
I have always been taught that the best way to be a leader is to lead by example. By setting a positive example for our students that it’s okay to unapologetically be ourselves, we are encouraging them to accept themselves and feel confident in who they are. But before we can get them to feel confident, we must first accept the small pieces that make us who we are and own our self-image. As you go into the classroom, don’t be afraid to just be yourself. Chances are, your students will feel inspired to do the exact same thing if we give them someone to look up to.
What is your advice to the ag ed profession to make ag ed a welcoming place for everyone? I come from a state where most of the population is primarily Hispanic and Native American, while the ag ed population is primarily Caucasian. Unfortunately, not all these ethnic groups are recognized equally in ag ed in my state, and that is where I believe students begin to feel as though they aren’t welcome. I, as a Hispanic male with a diagnosis of high-functioning autism, will admit that there were, and still are, times that I did not feel welcome within the ag ed community. Having been ridiculed and ostracized for both my Hispanic background and bilingual skills, and that my social skills are not up to par with my peers, there were times I seriously considered exiting ag ed.
Despite the difficulties I have faced, I use those experiences to fuel my goal of making sure every student who enters my classroom feels welcomed and included without feeling marginalized. To do this, I must always keep an open mind and never discredit anyone who comes into the program, regardless of their background. Some of the actions I can take are as simple as learning new phrases in different languages, being open to learning about and participating in different cultures and events that are new to me, or even having a heart-to-heart with a student who may not fit in easily and give them a new ally moving forward. By making every student feel as though their backgrounds and actions are of value and not favored over any of their peers, it will be easy to create an inclusive environment where everyone feels as though their voice and life experiences matter.