Teachable moments: Ag instructors share all
Longtime Maryland agriscience teachers Terri Shank and Joe Linthicum easily remember the moment they decided on their career path.
Though under different circumstances, they each recall a slew of mentors and advisors who supported them and pushed them to achieve more.
With a passion for sports, Shank was on her way to the University of Maryland to be a physical education teacher, a job her mother held. But when her mother saw 74 applicants came in to replace a retiring physical education teacher, she told Shank her other passion — agriculture — might be a better path. After talking with her ag teacher at Walkersville High School, Vernon Marshall, a new calling emerged at a time when few women were pursuing agriculture education.
“Mr. Marshall was the one who said ‘What’s keeping you from doing that.’” Shank said. “That was my ‘aha moment’ when there were so many applicants coming out of college for these positions.”
Shank went on to teach agriculture for more than 30 years in Washington County and then transitioned to be the executive director of the Maryland FFA Association and assistant director for high school and post-secondary education at the Maryland Agricultural Education Foundation.
For Linthicum, his moment was right before starting high school.
The local agriculture teacher, Cecil Massey, came to the family dairy farm to persuade Linthicum’s older brother to switch from majoring history in college to agriculture education.
Not only did Massey convince his bother, but also Linthicum who was listening in.
“I knew at that point, listening to him talk to my brother, I said, ‘that’s what I want to do,’” Linthicum said. Linthicum studied ag education at the University of Maryland and went on to teach most of his 40-year career at Francis Scott Key High School in Carroll County.
The mentorships continued for both.
Along with Marshall, agriculture education teachers Chuck Cramer and Paul Stull greatly impacted them in college and their early career, Shank and Linthicum said. Linthicum also mentioned Bob Keenan, another longtime ag teacher and co-founder of a summer program for teachers through MAEF.
“He was firm believer in saying, ‘If you’ve got something, share it,’ Linthicum said of Keenan with Shank nodding in agreement. “So I started using that same philosophy.”
Shank said working as a teaching assistant in the ag mechanics course while at Maryland and as an intern in the Carroll County Extension office for agents David Greene and Bob Shirley broadened her agricultural knowledge base and experience in lesson planning, classroom organization and visiting different programs around the state.
As teachers, those initial moments that set them on their career path were reinforced each time a student found success.
“The thing I enjoyed most? Probably that moment when the students realize that they could do something themselves and that they were successful and saw that hey this was worth it and see them continue to succeed,” said Shank.
“To see them and the smiles on their face once they realize ‘I can do this.’ That’s great,” Linthicum added.
Shank and Linthicum along the way became mentors themselves, both to students and other teachers beginning their careers.
Shank estimated about 3,500 students went through her program and many have gone on to start their own businesses, become teachers or go onto other careers in agriculture and natural resources. Some of the students may have surprised themselves with their achievements but Shank said a teacher sees the potential right away.
“I think some have gone on to achieve more than what they initially thought they could do,” she said. “That’s where I can nod and say ‘We knew you could do it all along.’”
Shank said for new ag teachers, the first five years are critical for retention and in her current role with FFA and MAEF, she makes it point to visit new teachers twice in the first year and annually after that, offering support like the support she got early on as well.
“If we’re going to keep them in the classroom, we need to be supporting them from day one,” Shank said. “Being available to answer questions, provide materials. Some of them come in and have never been in an ag program with an FFA chapter, so how to manage that. So I try to be very available to them to make sure they have what they need.”
Succeeding Linthicum in the Francis Scott Key High School agriscience program, Shelby Athoff recalls her own moment when the ag teacher bug bit. Initially pursuing a career in the natural resources field, Althoff was in her first year of college and began to think about a switch to teaching. She took an internship in the North Carroll High School agriscience program and it just fit.
“That was my moment that, yes, this what I want to do and where I want to be,” she said.
In taking over the program at FSK after Linthicum’s long tenure, she heard from many that she had big shoes to fill, but Linthicum was not one of them.
“He kept encouraging me that it’s not big shoes to fill that this is your program now and you need to run with it and make it your own,” Althoff said. “He’s been very supportive with that and I appreciate that more than anything.”
Linthicum said it’s the only way it should be.
“I think that’s what all teachers aim for. You don’t want to be a burden or a nuisance to them but be a resource to them so that if they need help they can call text or whatever to lend assistance. To be known but not ever be in the way,” he said.
Althoff added Shank has “taken me under her wing” too.
“The ag education profession is a family,” Shank said. “We support each other only professionally and in the classroom but also personally and that’s very unique within our profession.”
Now a few years into her own career, Althoff is collecting moments of her own that reinforce her decision to teach agriculture. One is with senior Sierra Wean who said FFA didn’t interest her early in high school but with encouragement from Althoff and hearing about what the program offered, went all in and is now serving as the chapter’s junior advisor.
“I’ve loved it and I wish I joined my freshman and sophomore year as well,” Wean said. “FFA has just opened many doors.”
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