SD Ag education and FFA history: Agricultural education instructors

Clark W. Hanson
Professor Emeritus of Agricultural Education at South Dakota State University
FFA News

Authors’ Note: To commemorate the passage of the Smith Hughes Act of 1917, Dr. Hanson has written a historical summary of events that occurred in the South Dakota Agricultural Education program.

Ag Teacher’s Creed

"I am an agricultural educator by choice and not by chance.

I believe in American agriculture; I dedicate my life to its development and the advancement of its people.

I will strive to set before my students by my deeds and actions the highest standards of citizenship for the community, state and nation.

I will endeavor to develop professionally through study, travel and exploration.

I will not knowingly wrong my fellow teachers. I will defend them as far as honesty will permit.

I will work for the advancement of agricultural education and I will defend it in my community, state and nation.

I realize that I am a part of the school system. I will work in harmony with school authorities and other teachers of the school.

My love for youth will spur me on to impart something from my life that will help make for each of my students a full and happy future." (National Association of Agricultural Educators)

The Smith-Hughes Act provided for program supervision at the state and federal level. In the early 1980s, the federal positions were being eliminated as staff retired and were not replaced.

The National FFA advisor and the National FFA board of directors (your author was a member of said board during time of initial formation) were concerned with leadership which was deemed necessary at the federal level. The concept of a leadership team representing all segments of the agricultural education family was conceived, funded and indeed formed.

For the local agriculture instructor, one of the first and continuing outcomes was the need for teacher in-service in new subject matter instructional areas. The end result has been a force in determining the direction of the profession and supplying the tools necessary to accomplish such goals.

Current activities include a weekly newsletter entitled “Monday Morning Monitor,” “National AFNR Content Standards” documenting anticipated instructional outcomes and a document “National Quality Program Standards” to assist in the evaluation of local agricultural education programs leading to quality program goals.

Council projects include but are not limited to “CASE” described as professional instructor development for specific curriculum design, “National Teach Ag Day” recruiting for the teaching profession and “FFA Learn,” a source for using current technology available for the classroom.

The Counsel Board of Directors membership is made up of the officers of Agricultural Education Organizations and specific audience representatives, including:

  • Agricultural Education Division of the Association for Career and Technical Education (ACTE)
  • American Association for Agricultural Education (AAAE)
  • National Association of Agricultural Educators (NAAE)
  • National Association of Supervisors of Agricultural Education (NASAE)
  • Representative of production agriculture
  • Adult representing secondary students in agriculture
  • Adult representing postsecondary students
  • Alumni representative
  • Agribusiness representative
  • Adult level instructor of the National Farm and Ranch Business Management Education Association (NFRBMEA; Position currently filled by Lori Tonak, Instructor at Mitchell Technical College)
  • Two-year postsecondary level instructor
  • Representative of Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities.

Early on, the South Dakota vocational agriculture teachers had been meeting in less than an official capacity for some time. Mr. Bublitz was president of the informal group from 1934-1935 and conducted the meeting, establishing the South Dakota Vocational Agriculture Teachers Association (SDVATA) on August 7, 1935.

The first officers elected were:

  • Bruce Oxton, president
  • R.V. Diggins, vice president (the future author of the series of Livestock Production textbooks (General, Dairy, Beef, Swine, Poultry, Sheep) by Bunde and Diggins
  • E. Thue, secretary
  • F. Baxa, treasurer

In 2009, the name of the organization was changed to South Dakota Association of Agriculture Educators (SDAAE). The change was made as vocational teachers were more commonly referred to as agricultural educators.

The first attempt to organize agricultural educators at the national level occurred in 1928. The National Association of Vocational Agriculture Teachers (NAVAT) was designated as the agriculture branch of the American Vocational Association.

For whatever reason, this concept did not last and the teachers organized in 1948 as The National Vocational Agriculture Teacher Association (NVATA). L. M. Polich from Gettysburg represented South Dakota at the formation meeting. The NVATA name was officially changed in December 1997 to the National Association of Agriculture Educators (NAAE), again dropping the word "vocational" and replacing the word "teacher" with "educator."  

Despite a relatively small number of programs in South Dakota and by and large single-teacher programs, South Dakota SDAAE members can be very proud of the fact that three of their members have served as national president for the organization:

  • 1972 -1973: Francis Murphy (Madison, Pierre)
  • 1985 -1986: Myron Sonne (Letcher, Mitchell Area Technical Institute)
  • 2015 - 2016: Terry Rieckman (Salem, McCook Central)

The NAAE organization is based on six regions, with South Dakota a member of Region III along with neighboring states North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Nebraska and Kansas.

Each region conducts summer conferences with states hosting events on a rotational basis. The respective state officers attend, as well as young members from each state who are encouraged to attend (especially those with aspirations to become state officers).

The agricultural educators are known as a very close knit group of teachers. One reason for such a label might be for the fact that they are often the only teacher in the school connected with the subject of agriculture.

This concept is built upon at the first state conference the new instructor attends and is paired with a “near by neighbor” teacher in an informal mentor relationship. Years later, even after one of the pair has moved to another school, you can identify previous “family” relationships.  

A fair share of the in-service which occurs among teachers is just simply two or more teachers getting together to share curriculum content and instructional techniques. For much of the history of this particular profession, the number of high school students in a given class did little to warrant giant publishers getting into the business of publishing agricultural class text books.

It wasn’t until the Carl Perkins CTE funds were available for the development and distribution of textbooks and laboratory manuals that the number of sources teachers could draw from was dramatically increased.

Agricultural teaching professionals have always been concerned with teacher turnover and the question arises, “How long do teachers stay in the classroom?” Guessing that records are not maintained, South Dakota would like to suggest a goal for schools.

Since 1945, Milbank High School has had three agricultural instructors:

  • 1945-77: Mr. Harold White
  • 1977-1992: Mr. Bob Jaskulka
  • 1992-present: Mr. Jerry Janisch

The Milbank program was started in 1936 and had three instructors serving until 1945. Mr. White was hired in the summer of 1945 and had also taught vocational agriculture at Hitchcock (1936-38) and Lemmon (1938-45). Total years of teaching experience: Mr. White (1935-77), Mr. Jaskulka (1977-92), Mr. Janisch (1982-present) with ten years at Waubay. One can only imagine the impact of 76 years of teaching experiences directed towards one local program.

Lester Clarke’s 1954 master’s thesis focused on reasons why South Dakota teachers left the vocational agriculture teaching profession. Twenty-two percent of the respondents ranked inadequate salary as being the major reason for leaving the profession of local agricultural instructor. Seventeen percent reported the second reason for leaving was the lack of an opportunity for advancement. It appeared that teachers had personal reasons for leaving the profession. A few respondents ranked as a number one issue that teaching was not enjoyable, a public apathy to educational issues, inadequate facilities and too many extracurricular activities. 

In 1957, Roger Heller, reported in a master’s degree study entitled, “Why South Dakota and Minnesota Vocational Agriculture Instructor Remained in the Teaching Field.”  The study was composed of 83 vocational agriculture teachers with 8 to 34 years of teaching experience. Sixty percent of the respondents planned on teaching vocational agriculture for the remainder of their teaching career, whereas 28% did not plan on teaching vocational agriculture as a one profession career. Three reasons were reported as important in keeping teachers in the classroom:

  • Enjoyed small town and rural living and working with farm people
  • Enjoyed the opportunity to work outdoors
  • Enjoyed teaching young people and being able to guide and counsel

Ernest Wingen surveyed 121 parents of senior vocational agriculture students of the 1954-55 school year. Seventy-five of the surveys were returned. In general, the parents were “definitely interested” in the classes and “greatly impressed” by the outcomes of local programs. Eighty-five percent of the parents were pleased for their sons to partake in a three to five day summer trip.

Harold Garry’s 1958 master’s degree study focused on fundraising to financing activities of the local FFA Chapter. A few of the recommendations include:

  • All chapters should have a budget and should try to raise the needed money and remain within the budget as expenditures. (One might guess if Mr. Gerry ever thought SD FFA Chapters would be selling fruit and specialty meats each year at Thanksgiving.)
  • A minimum of budget of about $450 would be sufficient for the average SD FFA Chapter.
  • Means of making money should be used which are in accord with community standards and which void direct competition with local merchants.
  • One goal of fundraising should be to aid in the development leadership.

Kenneth Ostroot reported in a 1963 study entitled, “Farming Opportunities, Career Choices, and Educational Aspirations of Farm Boys in South Dakota,” findings included:

  • Thirty-eight percent of the boys in the state who want to farm attend schools where they can enroll in vocational agriculture. Forty percent of the boys planning to farm do not plan any post high school training.

There is no doubt that teachers acquire a great deal of knowledge and perhaps even become experts in a given area. While true for a multitude of teachers, this is particularly true for agriculture education instructors. Oftentimes, this expertise can be applied to employment in the immediate community. Thus, the competition for an agricultural educator to stay in the local classroom.

What have the teachers accomplished? The nation as a whole couldn’t figure out how to deliver vocational education. The pressure to teach agriculture classes to high school students had been bounced around for some time with the discussion starting shortly after the passage of the Land Grant Act.  Multiple high schools initiated teaching agriculture classes and organized clubs for students enrolled in such classes. Congress  passed two federal laws, including the Smith-Hughes Act of 1917 and Perkins Act of 1963. Depression, drought, WW II, desegregation, Title IX, special needs legislation, normal teacher turn-over, COVID-19 pandemic, technology issues and program standards have all served as forces influencing the high school curriculum.

With the previously mentioned forces forever molding and shaping the local program, what was steering the project along the way? Bob Bell, former executive secretary of SD FFA perhaps said it best as he once stated, "The teacher is the center of it all; organized, creative and motivates.”

And the product emerged stronger than ever. Classroom instruction and career education supplemented by team and individual competition in the never ending quest for improvement.

Thank you to the agricultural education instructors sitting behind the front desk or wearing a welding helmet.