A Quest for Understanding: Striving for Success, Work-Life Balance, and Belonging as an Agriculture Teacher

By: Dr. Haley Traini, Oregon State University

As a high school agriculture teacher, I wanted to be the best at everything. The best teacher, coach, SAE supervisor, you name it. And I believe I accomplished this. After five years in the classroom, I coached state winning teams and public speakers, developed new courses, won grants and built successful programs in my chapter. It was both rewarding and fun work. I had wonderful colleagues, laughed every day and went home feeling like I made a difference in the lives of my students. 

But was I living a healthy, balanced lifestyle? Definitely not. In fact, aside from work, I had little to show for the time I spent in my community. When my then boyfriend and I decided to put our American careers on hold and go teach agriculture in Ghana, I had little to show for the time I spent in my community. There were no friends to say goodbye to because there was no time for friends. There were no gym memberships to cancel or clubs to say goodbye to, because there was no time for exercise or      extracurricular activities. There was no church community to say goodbye to, because there was no time for church. There was no time for any of these things because, in my mind, those things would take away from the work I had to do. Afternoons were spent coaching practices, completing paperwork, or weighing pigs. Weekends were spent lesson planning, practicing next week’s lab, or preparing for the upcoming FFA activities. There was so much to do. So much I had to get done and I didn’t foresee this changing anytime soon. 

So why do all of it? Why work 70+ hour weeks just to become depressed, lonely, and exhausted? Well, after much reflection, I realized it’s because I wanted to be good. I wanted to achieve, make a difference in my school, and be recognized as “successful.”      But where did this come from? Why did I think that to be “successful” I had to do ALL of these things? Was this a factor of personality? Where I was in my career? My upbringing as an Ag teacher’s daughter? Or was it something else? While I believe all of these factors contributed to my behavior and feelings, I believe the “something else” is more systemic, more cultural. And it was with these ideas that sparked my research as a doctoral student at Oregon State University (OSU).

To help make sense of my own experience, I dove into existing research that explores the work of agriculture teachers as soon as I began my studies at OSU. You won’t be surprised to hear that study after study found agriculture teachers encounter many challenges as they engage in their work (e.g., long hours, demanding expectations, excessive paperwork) and that they struggle to balance their work and non-work lives (often described as work-life balance). These same factors are the reasons why agriculture teachers leave the profession before retirement. 

Yet, I was disappointed to find that the recommendations to address the problem of overwork (long hours, burnout, low job satisfaction, job stress, etc.) were all pointed at the individual teacher. In other words, there is this underlying assumption that it is the teacher’s fault he/she can’t manage the job. Researchers often recommend professional development be implemented to fix the teacher and make him/her better at their job. And, while we can always improve and become more effective at our job, I found myself frustrated with this narrative. Is it really the teacher’s fault? Do they really just need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and keep chugging along? After going through the literature and discovering this, I decided to take a new approach with my research, one that doesn’t solely focus on the teacher as an isolated individual, but rather looks at the teacher as someone who operates within a system, a culture and a community. 

Here is what I found.

My first study was with agriculture teachers in Oregon who were in their first five years of teaching. This study investigated the ways in which the notion of      success is reified in school-based agricultural education and how agriculture teachers interact with reified forms of success, particularly when the concept of work-life balance is factored in. Reification is a theoretical concept I employed from a theory called Communities of Practice that acknowledges practices, concepts, symbols, language and      artifacts, becoming congealed into “thingness” when meaning is given to them (e.g., the American flag has become reified to mean freedom and patriotism).      

To answer my research questions, I asked participants to respond to eight questions on a large whiteboard through an interactive silent discussion. Examples of questions included: What does work-life balance look like? What is preventing you from achieving balance? How do you personally define a successful Ag. Teacher? How does our profession define success? Does balance factor into our notion of success? After 15 minutes of this, we had a series of discussions about what they wrote and what it means. I analyzed the responses they recorded on the whiteboard along with the small and whole-group discussions that took place after. The results were astonishing. Are you ready? 

Participants in this study struggle with the notion of success and work-life balance as the two concepts are not compatible with each other. They noted that one can be either a successful agriculture teacher (which they defined as winning awards, blue banners, grant dollars and high student membership) or a balanced agriculture teacher (which they defined as mentally and physically healthy), but you can’t be both. Participants identified that they struggle with this as they want to be both a good and balanced agriculture teacher. Unfortunately this is difficult as they couldn’t identify an agriculture teacher who  exemplifies this. Put in the perspective of the theoretical lens I employed to explain these results, we (agriculture teachers) do what we must to be considered good or competent in our profession to feel like we belong because when we feel like we belong, our life and work has meaning and purpose. We can’t simply let these reifications of success go. We can’t simply say, I will forsake winning, growing my program and increasing FFA membership to have more work-life balance because if we do, then we won’t be seen as good, successful, or competent by our peers in our profession. And feeling like we belong is important, it gives our life meaning.* 

I was floored by the results from this study because 1) I felt like I was finally able to tease out and put a name to my experiences as an agriculture teacher and 2) I realized that this may be something that is felt by other agriculture teachers, that perhaps I was getting at the underlying root to the agriculture teacher attrition problem.

Fortunately, I had another opportunity to dive deeper into this phenomenon for my dissertation. For this study, I decided to use the same theory to explore how agriculture teachers reconcile the competing demands of the profession. I wanted to understand how they go about managing the different expectations they have, hats they wear, and the roles they play. To do this, I engaged in one-hour interviews with 12 teachers across the country. I asked them about their work, who they are accountable to, and how they reconcile the different expectations and accountability partners of the job. While I don’t have space here to flesh out all of my results, I will share a few. The first is the theme I called Arms Race. Essentially, when participants were talking about their work, they described an unspoken yet ever-present feeling of judgement, comparison and competition that exists among agriculture teachers to be the best or most successful. To them, success depends on different accountability partners, but is often associated with awards, visibility, status and power in profession. Participants in my study are keenly aware of what other programs and agriculture teachers are doing and feel the need to do the same or more work to be considered a good agriculture teacher. One participant captured this by saying, “there are some Ag teachers that put a lot of pressure on other Ag teachers, there’s this kind of unspoken judgment, that if you don’t go to every SAE or CDE in your district, that you are doing something wrong.”      

Another theme was No Room for Error. Here, participants described the feeling of living in a fishbowl, that there is little room for forgiveness should they make a mistake or mess up in any way. These thoughts surfaced as they discussed feelings of fear, social pressure, and threats of losing funding should they mess up in any way. This finding went hand-in-hand with another theme called “Appeasing Those in Power.” Here, participants recognized people and groups of people that are more powerful than them (e.g., administrators, advisory board members, influential community members) and the importance of giving them what they want and keeping them happy, even if it doesn’t align with their vision for the program. They do this because they need these individuals to support their program, either through financial, material, or social means. I also found that participants reconcile the competing demands of the profession through a variety of means ranging from prioritizing some responsibilities of the job over others, leveraging existing resources, networks and opportunities to check multiple boxes at once, neglecting certain aspects of their job altogether, molding their family to their job, or delegating certain responsibilities to other people, among others. Participants even reconciled the competing demands of the profession by finding a new job at a different school or contemplating leaving the profession altogether. 

When I look at my data holistically, one thing stands out. Agriculture teachers have such complex and demanding jobs that it appears that it is simply not feasible to both do it all and do it well. Something must give. And as they try their best and manage the best way they can, they have the eyes of the entire community, not to mention the profession, on them. Could this be a reason why so many agriculture teachers choose to leave the profession despite their love for students and agriculture? Could this be the reason we see such a shortage of agriculture teachers across the country? Unfortunately, I’m not able to answer those questions given my data, but it does make me wonder if these feelings and experiences are unique to this sample of participants. Luckily, my job as a researcher allows me to continue asking these questions. 

So, readers, now that I’ve shared with you a snapshot of my research, I’m curious to know what you think. Do you resonate with the experiences of my participants? Did you find yourself nodding along as your read this article? Or have you had a different experience, one that counteracts those of my participants? I would love to hear your story! Please email me at haley.traini@oregonstate.edu, find me on Facebook, or come visit me at Oregon State!

*If you want to hear more about my first study, check out the podcast I recorded with Owl Pellets. The Owl Pellets podcast can be found on Facebook and any podcast platform.

For more information about the California Agricultural Teachers’ Association, visit http://calagteachers.org/

One thought on “A Quest for Understanding: Striving for Success, Work-Life Balance, and Belonging as an Agriculture Teacher

  1. My degree is in Ag Education. I taught Ag and advised FFA for a total of 16 of my 31 years. Three of those years in California.

    Recently, I was hired to reinvigorate a neglected Construction Trades and Welding program.

    The superintendent also pushed hard for me to form, revive an FFA program. I said no. A good Ag teacher has no down time and I am not young. I agreed to teach one Ag class of five students, three of which were out for football yesterday…

    I have observed good Ag teacher never has down time and I have become accustomed to my summers at the beach.

    Like

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