A Trend to Celebrate: Women in Agricultural Education on the Rise

As the agricultural science teacher started her lesson about equine science, she looked out to a classroom full of talented students and recognized a new generation of educators. Meanwhile, another agricultural science teacher huddled in a cold meat locker with a group of students, visually dissecting the anatomy of a cow carcass in preparation for a meats judging contest. Across the state, an agriculture science teacher stayed after school searching through the FFA supply closet in hopes of finding an inexpensive and engaging hands-on project for her floral design students to complete. On the other side of the state, an agricultural education teacher drives students to a FFA judging competition on a Saturday morning instead of spending time at home with family. 

Each of these examples could happen in multiple agriculture programs across the state and even the nation. Agricultural science programs prepare students for careers in the agricultural industry, which encompass a wide range of careers from farming and ranching to food production and distribution. Although the agricultural science teaching profession has historically been a male-dominated field, recent data indicates an increasing number of women are pursuing careers in agricultural education. 

From High School to Higher Education

Chelsea Hatch, an assistant professor of practice in agricultural education joined the faculty team at Texas Tech in 2022 after a career as a high school agriculture science teacher.Hatch started teaching agriculture science in 2013 at Comal Independent School District and then taught agriculture at Plainview ISD from 2015 to 2021. 

Making the move to higher education was an opportunity for Hatch to help shape the careers of future agriculture educators.

“I got into agriculture a little later in life and I had to learn a lot,” Hatch said. “But I always knew I wanted to be in education, so when the job at Tech became open, I took it.”

Like Hatch, Gaea Hock also started her career teaching high school agriculture before making the move to higher education. Hock, who earned her doctoral degree in agricultural education from Texas Tech in 2012, taught secondary agriculture at Centre High School in Kansas.

“I chose to go towards the route of agriculture education because both of my parents were educators and I loved my FFA experience, and then I got encouraged to go,” Hock said.

Hock is now an associate professor of agricultural education at Kansas State University, her alma mater. She said agricultural educators influence the next generation of leaders, which is a part of the job she takes very seriously.

“The mentorship that exists in these areas makes an impact,” Hock said. “If you see more people like you doing things that you are interested in, you are more likely to do it. Of the students I have taught in the six years, three of them went on to be ag teachers – all of them women.” 

Hock said she questioned whether that was because they saw her as a female ag teacher or were they always destined to go into the classroom.

Hock said Kansas State has also recognized the increase in women pursuing agricultural education. When she graduated in 2003 from Kansas State, there were only four women in her class. In 2023, she said the Kansas State program had 19 female student teachers, and only three were males. 

A Shift Toward Inclusion

The increase in women agricultural science teachers mirrors an overall increase in women pursuing higher education degrees. In the Davis College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources at Texas Tech University, women represent 60% of the student population while men make up 40%. A trend that has held steady for the last several years, according to the Texas Tech Institutional Research website. 

According to Hatch, one explanation for this trend is that the National FFA Organization has retooled some of its events to include a teamwork and presentation element. Hatch also saidsome believe that this is how National FFA is trying to respond to pressures of business and industry to make career development events more relevant to the changing job market.

“[FFA] competitions started emphasizing professional development and public speaking, which may have encouraged more women to become involved,” Hock said.

According to the National FFA website, these events teach young students how to rationalize, develop critical thinking skills and effective decision-making skills, foster teamwork and promote communication while recognizing the value of ethical competition and individual achievement. 

Hatch pointed out that the shift in competition structure is a means of holding students accountable for more transferable skills. The shift to make competitions more applicable in the real-world is an important factor to recognize when discussing the influx of women participating in agriculture.

Hock suggested that there was a big push for women to join the agricultural education field in the early 2000s, which may be another factor to this trend we are seeing. 

“The agricultural education community did a good job of getting women into the classroom by showing them ample support,” Hock said. “[The] next step is to figure out how to continue to attract other underrepresented groups and invite them into the classroom.”

Hock emphasized the importance of prioritizing diversity and inclusion in the agricultural education industry. Hock said doing this will cultivate a more vibrant and inclusive community that better reflects the diverse perspectives of the agricultural industry.

Emphasizing Retention

Jennifer Jackson serves as the executive director of Texas FFA. 

Jackson said her background in agriculture and FFA influenced her decision to pursue a career in agricultural education. The Farmersville, Texas, native completed her student teaching at Blue Ridge Independent School District before graduating from Texas A&M University-Commerce in 2006. She then spent the next 14 years teaching agricultural science at FriscoCentennial High School, Wylie High School, and Van Alstyne High School, before assuming her current position at Texas FFA.

Jackson said investing in students was her favorite part about teaching.

“The biggest part about teaching ag was the students. They are funny, engaging and say some of the nicest things,” Jackson said. “You go home at night and think, ‘Man I really am blessed to have this job.’”

“You go home at night and think, ‘Man I really am blessed to have this job.’”

Jennifer Jackson

Jackson said one of her priorities in her role with the Texas FFA is recognizing the importance of keeping teachers in the classroom and making an active effort to do so. This issue, often referred to as the ‘the great resignation,’ is one of the most pressing challenges facing agricultural education in Texas.

“We have got to fight for them at the state level,” she said. “We have to try to make sure [teachers] are valued, make sure that they have good health insurance, and that their benefits make up for what their pay lacks.”

Jackson said one initiative called ‘Team Ag Ed’ is working to find solutions to these challenges by pooling the collaborative efforts of organizations that support agricultural education and FFA programming.

Jackson states that several organizations and associations in Texas understand the value in supporting agricultural educators and joined efforts to create Texas Team Ag Ed. The program is designed to find ways to support teachers and help them navigate the increasingly challenging landscape of the profession. Texas Team Ag Ed meets monthly to discuss how to keep teachers in the classroom, knowing the job continues to get harder.

Jackson also emphasized the importance of providing teachers with quality resources that can be easily implemented in the classroom, such as career week materials, FFA Friday resources, and Day at the Capitol materials. According to Jackson, these ready-made resources assist teachers by saving time and reducing their workloads.

Recruitment into the profession is another crucial issue for Jackson and Texas FFA. She said there is a need to continue to recruit individuals who are passionate about agriculture. 

“It’s so much bigger than just ag education,” Jackson said. “It’s sustaining the population. So, we have to continue to recruit those people who are embedded in agriculture.”

A recent doctoral dissertation presented by Samantha Gaddie, a graduate student in the Department of Agricultural Education and Communications at Texas Tech, suggests 75% of new agricultural science teachers are female, yet women leave the profession at a 2% higher rate than their male counterparts. Gaddie’s study, which sought to understand retention in female agriculture teachers, highlights the need for teacher support to keep them in the profession.

“We continue to have a gap where we do not have enough ag teachers to fill a program,” Gaddie said. “Last year thirty ag programs closed because of lack of ag teachers. It makes think about how many students did not get to be impacted by agricultural education.”

Participants in the study said they had considered leaving for another career, especially one in either education or agriculture. However, participants were motivated to stay by students, an adoration for teaching, and a passion for agriculture. 

“What surprised me most about this research was how much the class load itself impacted ag teachers,” Gaddie said. “Most ag teachers teach four to five different classes a day, that’s twenty different lessons a teacher is preparing for a week.”

Gaddie, who teaches agriculture sciences in the Green County School District in Kentucky, recommended the use of state-generated curriculum, completion of curriculum focused professional development, and provision of FFA time during the day as possible solutions to encourage retention.

A Classroom Perspective 

In 2015, Missy Thompson was the first female agricultural science teacher at Haskell ISD in Haskell, Texas. Born and raised in Haskell, a rural community. She said her rich agricultural background inspired her to pursue a career in the industry, although becoming a teacher was not her immediate plan.

Thompson earned her bachelor’s degree in animal science from West Texas A&M University in 2002 and later got her master’s in animal science from Texas Tech in 2005. After finishing up school, she worked for the Texas AgriLife Extension Service in Clay County for eight years where she discovered an interest in working with kids. 

​“When I worked as a county agent, my favorite part was helping and teaching the youth,”Thompson said. “It was never in my sights to become an ag teacher, but when the opportunity presented itself, I just fell into it.” 

During a conversation with her mother, she learned about an opening at Haskell ISD as an agricultural science teacher. Thompson said she jumped at the opportunity and has been teaching there ever since.

Kenny Cockerell works with Thompson within Haskell ISD’s agriculture program.  Cockerell said she appreciates Thompson’s work ethic.

“She is a hustler,” Cockerell said. “There is nobody, male or female that is going to outwork Mrs. Thompson.”

Not only does Thompson work extensively through all her tasks as an agricultural educator, but she is also a full-time mother of three young children. She deals with the challenges of work-life balance, a common struggle for many agriculture teachers. 

“The reason I am able to be an involved teacher is thanks to the continuous support and understanding I receive from my family, administration, and the community,” Thompson said.

For example, when the Haskell daycare shutdown recently, Haskell CISD provided teachers with a temporary fix – after school childcare, until a more permanent solution can be provided. Thompson said success is not necessarily measured by trophies or titles, but rather seeing her students be successful in life. 

She said the secret to staying in the profession, having an optimistic mindset, a love to work, and no short cuts. 

“I don’t want to be treated differently because I’m a woman, I just want to do my job,”Thompson said.

Thompson said she recognizes the importance of women joining the industry and is encouraged by the growing number of females in agricultural education.

“When I first started this job eight years ago, there was me and one other woman ag teacher in our district. Although we still haven’t caught up completely in the Double Mountain District, it’s nice to see that number climbing,” Thompson said.

Thompson said her sense of responsibility and passion for her students keeps her going.

“If you love your job, it isn’t work,” Thompson said. “I go into my classroom every day with a positive mindset and knowledge of knowing I am responsible for setting these kids up for success, and that’s what drives me to do my job.