A trending online word game is Wordle. In this game one tries to guess, in as few guesses as possible, a secret word. Each time you guess, the computer lets you know if each letter you typed is in the secret word or not. If the letter is in the word, the computer will let you know whether it is in the correct spot. Based on the feedback from your first word, you enter another word in the grid and keep going until you have guessed the word or run out lines on which to enter your guesses. It is a challenging game to play and exercises your brain.
Figure 1. A Wordle. A gray box indicates the letter is not in the secret word, a yellow box indicates the letter is in the word but not in that position. A green box indicates the letter is in the word and in that position.
This Friday Footnote plays off the Wordle idea. I will provide you with some information and your job is to guess the nine letter word that completes this phrase “Agriculture Teachers are □□□□□□□□□.”
The Past Three Years
The past three years have been very challenging for agriculture teachers because of Covid 19. As I travel about the county visiting with agriculture teachers, I ask them to describe what it was like trying to teach in the age of Covid-19. The words I hear most often are: Frustrating, Tiring, Confusing, Trying, Exhausting, Befuddled, and Helpless.
I next ask them to describe the impact of Covid 19 on their classroom and students. Some of the comments were
- Students forgot how to be students
- Access to appropriate technology was a challenge for many students
- Students had to go to work to help the family survive and/or care for younger family members
- There was a constant change of expectations for teachers
- Teacher had to learn a different pedagogy of instruction overnight
- Many felt like a first-year teacher
Yes, the past three years have been trying, but it could have been much worse. Being an agriculture teacher during the Great Depression and Dust Bowl era was even more challenging.
On October 29, 1929, the stock market crashed. This event triggered the Great Depression. During the depression some 9,000 U.S. banks failed. Unemployment reached 25%. People lost their homes. Soup kitchens fed the needy and homeless.
By the fall of 1932 many people were unable to pay their property taxes. Because of bank failures and lack of taxes, school hours were reduced, class sizes were increased, and teacher salaries were often reduced. Poor school districts in rural areas closed their doors. By 1934 approximately 20,000 schools, mostly rural, severely shortened the school year or closed entirely due to funding problems (https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-and-education-magazines/education-1929-1941).
The schools that remained open often paid their teachers with “scrip” which was basically an IOU. By 1932 the city of Chicago owed the teachers $20 million in back pay. The Chicago teachers marched on City Hall and then vandalized banks that did not honor the scrip. Paying teachers with scrip was a standard practice across the country.
An article in the Courier-Post of Camden, New Jersey in 1933 stated that teachers had received a 30 percent pay cut and were to be paid $97,000 in scrip for their September paycheck (See Figure 2)
Figure 2. From the Courier Press, Camden, New Jersey, September 21, 1933.
The New Jersey situation was not an isolated event. A search of Newspapers.com using the search term “teachers paid” + “scrip” between the years 1930 to 1940 yielded 399 matches in 44 states. But this is just the tip of the iceberg, especially for agriculture teachers. They were suffering from what I call a “double whammy.”
Not only were Americans suffering from the depression, the agricultural world was reeling from a series of calamities. The price of two major crops, wheat and cotton, had dropped precipitously. Wheat that sold for $1.83 a bushel in 1920 sold for $.67 a bushel in 1930. Cotton had dropped from 37 cents a pound to 6 cents a pound in the same time period. To compensate for the lost income farmers were plowing up more land and planting more wheat and cotton.
Then a prolonged drought hit. If this was not bad enough, huge dust storms known as Black Blizzards moved across the country blowing away the topsoil (See the July 24, 2020 Friday Footnote). Crops did not grow, and many farmsteads were covered in drifting soil. The fine, gritty dirt seeped into houses and food. Some 7,000 people and untold numbers of livestock died from “dust pneumonia.” People wore masks to protect against the blowing dust. (See Figure 3).
The blowing dust storms created static electricity which was strong enough to stunt or kill plants. Many drivers attached chains to their cars to ground them. People shaking hands could get electric shocks strong enough to knock them down.
To further compound the situation, pests were a major problem. Any crop that managed to grow was ravaged by swarms of grasshoppers and herds of jackrabbits.
Figure 3. Scenes from the Dust Bowl.
How Did the Agriculture Teachers React?
So what did the agriculture teachers do during the Great Depression and Dust Bowl? Did they throw up their hands and say, “Woe is me”? No! In the immortal words of the legendary Notre Dame football coach, “When the going gets tough the tough get going.”
Even though agriculture teachers often received pay cuts and were paid in scrip they persevered. They didn’t give up. They tackled the challenges head on. They could serve as role models for us today. Even though we think the last 3 years have been hard, they were nothing compared to the 1930s.
An agriculture teacher in Texas told me last week “Teaching during the depression was really a hardship. Teaching during the Pandemic was more of an inconvenience.”
The catch phrase “Keep on Keeping on” could have been the mantra for the 1930s agriculture teachers. Tulia High School in the Texas panhandle was one of the hardest hit areas during the dust bowl era. But this did not stop Mr. Van Zandt, the agriculture teacher from doing what ag teachers do. The following clipping from the May 7, 1936 Tulia school newspaper shows the award winning dairy judging team. A little thing like the depression and dust bowl did not stop Mr. Van Zandt and his students.
Figure 4. From the Tulia school newspaper.
What specifically did the agriculture teachers do to improve the situation during the depression/dust bowl?
Established Thrift Banks – With banks failing numerous agriculture teachers encouraged their FFA chapters to establish thrift banks. Saving money was important during the depression. The FFA thrift banks have been described in a previous Friday Footnote.
Soil Conservation – With the severe erosion problems caused by the dust storms agriculture teachers not only advocated for soil conservation but took action. Some examples follow:
The agriculture teachers in Beckville and Breckenridge High Schools in Texas took their students on field trips to see USDA soil conservation demonstrations (Marshall News Messenger, March 11 1936 ; Ft. Worth Star-Telegram, January 9, 1938).
T. Rogers, an agriculture teacher in South Carolina taught about terracing to an adult farmer class at the Oak Hill schoolhouse with 50 farmers in attendance on November 28, 1933. The next day he led a terracing demonstration on the Huff farm (The Greenville News, November 29, 1933).
An article in the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal in 1939 (see below) indicated that agriculture teachers and FFA members had been actively terracing the land. Other teachers across the country were doing similar things.
Figure 5. Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, February 26, 1939
Rabbit Drives – Some agriculture teachers organized rabbit drives, also known as rabbit roundups. Students and community members would build a pen with feeder fences leading into the pen and then drive the rabbits into the pen. An 1894 engraving depicts this (see Figure 6 below). The rabbits were then dispatched and were often skinned with the meat being canned to feed those in need of food.
Figure 6. An 1895 rabbit drive engraving.
I have found several mentions in newspapers of agriculture teachers organizing rabbit drives. A couple were F. E. Tutt, agriculture teacher in Abilene High School (TX), March 28, 1934 and William Brown, agriculture teacher at Grandfield High School (OK), February 13, 1937. The FFA members at Opheim High School in Montana were active in the war on rabbits (See Figure 7).
Figure 7. From the Missoulian (MT), January 18, 1937.
Agriculture Teachers are □□□□□□□□□
Agriculture teachers were proactive about facing the problems during the 1930s. It would have been easy to just give up. Have you figured out the word that completes the phrase above? Strong, tough, and devoted doesn’t fit the space. The word we are looking for is resilient. Agriculture teachers in the 1930s were resilient. Agriculture teachers of today who have successfully weathered the past three years of teaching through the Covid 19 pandemic are also resilient. However, there are indications that Covid may be on a rebound. So, as we face a new school year, we must continue to be resilient.
The Center for Creative Leadership has developed a list of eight resilience practices. As we embark on a new school year, it would be wise to remember and embrace these eight practices (See Figure 8). They are:
- Increase Physical Activity
- Get Enough Sleep
- Boost Mindfulness
- Challenge Your Assumptions
- Savor the Sweet Things
- Practice Gratitude
- Build Social Connections
- Engage Your Senses, Including Touch
I would strongly encourage you to learn more about these practices by going to https://www.ccl.org/articles/leading-effectively-articles/8-steps-help-become-resilient/.
Figure 8. From the Center for Creative Leadership.
It is no secret that the past three years have been trying. But agriculture teachers are resilient. We survived the 1930s and we will survive the current times. Remember that! Let’s have a good school year. Resolve to get better, not bitter.