Taylorville Ag Teacher is Outstanding in Her Field
Sue Schafer always knew farming was in her blood. But during her junior year at Iowa State University – when she coached a 4-H team to victory at the Illinois state livestock judging contest – she discovered it meant something more.
“That’s when I decided teaching is probably what I needed to do,” Schafer says.
She promptly switched her major to agriculture education – a decision that has yielded big gains for Taylorville High School, where she has taught for the past 15 years.
As a lifelong farmer and award-winning educator, Schafer knows that helping both plants and people to flourish requires special care.
“I want to get to know kids on a personal basis and make a difference in their lives,” says Schafer, who lives in Owaneco in central Illinois with her husband and two children.
In 2013, that commitment earned Schafer the Section 16 Excellence in Teaching Award from the Illinois Association of Vocational Agriculture Teachers.
“Sue is extremely involved with students … she makes them stretch,” says Jim Craft, the association’s executive director. “She is very good at finding a student’s niche.”
Under her leadership, the school’s extremely active FFA chapter earned national recognition as a “superior” chapter. The National FFA Organization, formerly known as Future Farmers of America, helps young people develop career, leadership and life skills through agricultural education.
“We’re in the top 1 percent of all FFA chapters in the nation,” says Schafer, one of three ag teachers at Taylorville.
The chapter’s diverse community service activities include community suppers, landscaping, coat drives and providing Christmas presents for underprivileged children.
The group also focuses heavily on fundraising – such as raising and selling greenhouse plants – so every student has the opportunity to participate in camps, competitions, science fairs and other leadership activities.
Between classroom and extracurricular activities, Schafer’s work weeks often stretch to 70 hours. FFA competitions and other weekend events often become family affairs for the Schafers.
“There’s a lot of time involved, but I really believe in what I do,” Schafer says. “My family believes in it as well.”
Still, she makes one thing crystal clear to new students: “I’m not here to make you a farmer.”
Instead, she aims to help them understand where food comes from and foster respect for farming as a profession.
“Very few of my students come from farms,” says Schafer, who also teaches topics like landscape management and veterinary science for the roughly 20 percent who will enter an ag-related field.
Students gain technical skills through hands-on work in the greenhouse or mechanic shop; while community service and competitions build leadership and life skills like public speaking.
“We want to give them career skills they can use throughout their lives,” Schafer says. Her approach mirrors a broader agribusiness focus adopted by FFA.
“FFA is all about career preparation,” says Craft, who hopes more students will follow in Schafer’s footsteps. “There is a desperate need for ag ed teachers, and what Sue does is a role model others could adopt.”
For Schafer, teaching – much like farming – extends beyond just a career. “It’s a way of life,” she says.