MONROE — Stressed, confused and sometimes a few tears — that’s how Amber Samson described the first-semester teaching agriculture when she landed a position out of college as an instructor at Dallas Center-Grimes Community High School.
But after four years of trial and error, Samson’s students at PCM High School will say she is not only competently teaching the broad, multi-tiered subject, but passing along countless lessons they will hold onto for the rest of their lives.
“Ms. Samson doesn’t just teach (agriculture), she teaches everything else. She teaches life lessons,” student Maddie Samson said. “I am super passionate about FFA and I think she is why.”
The four-year teacher has been a member of the Iowa Association of Agricultural Educators since 2014. As a member of the group, she typically would attend the career-building conferences the organization offers.
This year, she decided to mentor new teachers to pass down what she learned over her four years of teaching, and help create better agriculture teachers for the years to come.
“There is a big discrepancy between college preparation classes and your first job,” Samson said. “They teach you this stuff in college, but they don’t really teach you that stuff in college. Then they just kind of hand it to you.”
According to the Iowa Department of Education, agriculture was listed as a teacher shortage area for the 2017-18 school year. Although there are many students majoring in agriculture-related subjects in college, not many are looking to pass down their knowledge to others.
Samson said this may be because being an agriculture teacher is very difficult.
“The first two years, you are very overwhelmed,” she said. “There is really no one you can turn to in your building.”
Samson said typically, teachers fresh out of college are assigned a mentor — usually someone who has been a teacher for a while and is a veteran in the classroom. She said it is rare to see multiple agriculture instructors in a district. This means agriculture teachers are commonly assigned a mentor that teaches another subject.
But as many people who have taken an agriculture class know, it is very different from the others.
“Ag is not just about farming. Agronomy is the closest we get to farming ... when I hear agriculture, I hear food, natural resources, science, man, economics,” Samson said. “Your mentor is usually some random teacher who has no idea what you are going through or how to really help you ... some don’t even know what FFA is.”
In the state, regular courses like science, math and literature follow the Iowa Core. The curriculum is usually mapped out to ensure all students in the district are college and career ready in that field.
In agriculture, the subjects are vast. The curriculum is not standardized. Lessons are hands on. Plus, the class is usually associated with the school’s Future Farmers of America program.
For new instructors, teaching a class is difficult enough. With these extra responsibilities, Samson said teaching agriculture can be overwhelming.
“We have a set of competencies, standards and benchmarks, but we are free to pick and choose sort of. That is what is nice about being Ag, but it is hard for new teachers,” Samson said. “There is a standardized test statewide that students have to take, but there is nothing for agriculture.”
This year, Samson is mentoring Emily Van Manen of Dowling Catholic High School in West Des Moines. According to the PCM teacher, she meets her mentee roughly once a month. This semester, Samson said she will visit Van Manen in her classroom, observe her teaching, give her some suggestions and answer any question she may have.
She said through this partnership, the two are able to learn from each other and trade ideas to better the class and the overall lesson plan.
“She knows she has someone to turn to,” Samson said. “She gets the opportunity to learn from an old dog, and she gets to teach me new tricks. I get to see a new program dynamic. I am in a public school, she’s not.”
As students of a variety of backgrounds and career goals take the course, Samson said mentoring other Ag teachers will help not only progress the subject, but also help their students become better, more educated citizens of the world.
“I just wanted to help someone stay in the profession that should be in the profession,” Samson said. “If we keep good Ag teachers and get kids down here, we will have future doctors, lawyers, teachers of all grades, moms, dads ... They aren’t just our future farmers.”
Samson’s students, like Maddie and junior Wyatt Van Gorp, agree.
“Her mentoring is kind of inspirational. She hasn’t been here terribly long, but she is already branching out and helping people be better at their jobs,” he said. “I kind of look up to that.”
For more information about IAAE, visit iowaagteachers.org.
Contact Anthony Victor Reyes at email@example.com