The TEA of Student Teaching
Insights from Alumnus Riley Nilsen
Brightly colored hair, runny noses, “spirit” gear, black fingernails and muddy shoes. At 8 a.m. my classroom is blasting music by “Queen,” students are yelling “good morning” to one another. A girl leans in and asks me, “Do you want to hear the latest tea?” (Take a look into the Urban Dictionary and you’ll find “tea” is the best kind of gossip, typically shared between friends.) Pencils continue scribbling down the morning warm-up. “Boring” is the last word I would use to describe teaching agriculture.
Becoming an agricultural teacher was my goal when I attended Cal Poly. But I came to a fork in the road, and I had to decide whether I really wanted to teach after I graduated, or if I should use my agricultural science degree and start applying for industry jobs.
When I leaned on friends and mentors for advice, I realized that the people I met and became friends with during my agricultural education in high school were now the strong circle of people I count on for making life decisions. My “people” became my “why,” as they helped me realize the value of teaching as a profession. The time and money invested in my teaching credential has most definitely been worth it.
I can now use the variety of experiences I had while pursuing my undergraduate degree to benefit my students because of how closely aligned agricultural education and Cal Poly’s education are. In fact, Cal Poly President Emeritus Benjamin Crandall served as an agriculture professor at the University of California in 1921 and modeled Cal Poly’s senior projects after the Supervised Agricultural Experiences (SAE) program. And so, Learn by Doing continues to be my motto. Completing research projects at the collegiate level has helped me work with high school students on their ag-science projects as well as plan the logistics of their SAE.
Cal Poly prepared me for teaching by putting me in classes outside of my major and connecting me with the most passionate peers in the agriculture industry. I’ve heard the agricultural science major described as “a mile wide and an inch deep.” Thank goodness it is, because I can speak to a variety of careers and skills that have repeatedly come in handy when I’m in front of a crowd of curious 15-year old-students. I’m able to break down the same lab activities I completed at Cal Poly with my students to teach them basic agricultural concepts like propagating plants or castrating sheep.
What I wasn’t expecting, though, was that my network of friends would prove so useful. They helped me make real-world connections to the curriculum I teach. For example, Cal Poly agricultural communication alumna Jenna Lee works at Mission Avocado, which had just developed a new technology to prevent fruit from browning. I was able to directly apply my discussion with Jenna to my classroom when explaining how new technology in agriculture helps create careers for students who would rather not get their shoes muddy.
And when teaching a lesson about greenhouse gases, I asked dairy science alumnus Randy Edwards for a PowerPoint about methane digesters that he got at a conference he attended. I was also able to tell my class about his continued education and environmental advancements in the dairy industry.
Teaching agriculture has been unexpectedly rewarding, and every day comes with its unique set of curve balls. My major in agricultural science, Cal Poly’s Agricultural Education and Communication Department, and my peers have all helped me lay the foundation upon which I have built my career. Student teaching led me to this unbelievable career, and I hope others will learn about – and experience -- the “tea” in teaching agriculture.