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U of I students participate in hands-on learning

Published April 4, 2012
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University of Illinois agricultural science education students are finding out what it is like to be a high school agriculture instructor in classrooms across the state.

Agricultural Sciences Education Program Coordinator Debra Korte said student teaching confirmed she wanted to be an agriculture teacher. She said teaching agriculture appeals to students who enjoy a variety of agricultural topics and working with people.

"You get the best of both worlds," she said. "You get to help shape and develop young students, and you get the opportunity to help them discover career paths they are going to explore later in life. You also get to teach them real-world skills such as responsibility, teamwork, leadership, and public speaking."

To determine where they will student teach, students go through an application and interview process during the fall semester of their junior year. Students select three schools where they would like to complete their student teaching experience. Then they are interviewed by a panel of individuals, consisting of agriculture teachers, faculty, and education partners. The students are evaluated based on their personality and competency to match them up with the ideal school.

"We put them in a school where we think they will not only continue to enhance their strengths, but also improve areas in which they feel the least confident in teaching," Korte said. "Often students are placed in one of their top choices."

Korte said U of I students aren't limited by location or proximity.

"Our goal is to utilize extremely successful agricultural education programs throughout the state," she said. "We have been able to partner with agriculture teachers who do a wonderful job working with and training student teachers. Over the years, we have worked really hard to be able to find people that are going to do a great job, and we make sure to place students there."

Students observe their supervising teacher during their first two weeks in the classroom. Then the student begins to teach one or two classes during the third week and gradually picks up another class each week until they are teaching all of the courses. After three to five weeks of teaching all the classes, the student stops teaching a class each week until the supervising teacher regains all of his or her classes.

"Student teaching is key to the agricultural education curriculum because it provides students who desire to become teachers an opportunity to apply their lessons while developing better teaching techniques," said Emma Meyer, a student teacher at Tri-Valley in Downs. "While in college, we have an opportunity to practice teaching with our peers, which is a valuable experience, but nothing compares to actually teaching a lesson to high-school students."

Korte said the students' experiences outside the classroom set agriculture student teachers apart from other education programs. Agriculture student teachers are not only required to develop lessons and teach classes, but they are also required to participate in all the chapter's FFA activities. They work several evenings and weekends to help out with the students' supervised agricultural experiences, career development events and more.

"Because FFA is such a key component to an agricultural education program, student teaching also provides a chance for prospective teachers to see all that FFA entails, from planning and registering for Career Development Events (CDEs) and conventions to taking students to those CDEs and other events," Meyer said. "You get to see what the students see and be a part of and all the background preparation as well, which is a truly valuable experience."

Throughout the semester, students are evaluated by their supervising teacher. Korte said that ideally the supervising teacher and student discuss the student's progress every day, including ways the student could improve.

In addition, students are visited by an agriculture science education program faculty member three times. The faculty member observes the student in several classes and completes an official evaluation form. Korte said that afterward they discuss with the student and cooperating teacher what worked, didn't work or could be improved upon.

"This whole experience is amazing because while we are out in our respective supervising schools, we have support from university faculty and staff and assistance from our supervising teachers," Meyer said. "In this way, we are able to try things on our own while still having an amazing network to fall back on when we need it most."

Several times throughout the semester, students return to campus to learn about topics such as the FFA program of activities application, proficiency awards and record books, incentive funding grants, and more.

"Our goal is to provide students with a teaching experience that is realistic, positive and rewarding," Korte said. "We want them to have an experience that motivates them to continue to pursue a career as an agriculture teacher."

Meyer said she knows she made the right career choice.

"As in any career, there are challenges that can be discouraging, but the benefits of this career are immense," she said. "Watching students succeed on a test is extremely rewarding. I enjoy teaching so much even though it sometimes can be a challenge. But the challenge makes the successes worth it."