Ellen Baker doesn’t need help backing up a trailer, thank you very much.
No, Hailey Weaver isn’t the substitute teacher for her own welding class. And yes, Taylor Alcorn watches car shows like Top Gear and Diesel Brothers.
These revelations may come as a shock to people who see agricultural science as a “man’s job,” but clipping pigs and rebuilding tractors are part of the job for Denton ISD’s agriculture teachers.
“Just because we can weld and just because we can be in the shop doesn’t mean we can’t take care of things at home and be domestic,” said Shannon McCuistion, the district’s lead ag teacher who spends her time on the Denton High School campus.
Eight of the nine teachers in the district’s ag department are female, an odd combination in a field that traditionally had been made up of men. But the women represent a shift in the ag teaching world as demographics start to tip in the other direction.
“Women shouldn’t be afraid to be part of this industry,” said Baker, who teaches at the Braswell High School campus. “It just takes a very strong woman to do this job.”
According to a 2003 study published in the Journal of Career and Technical Education, women made up 15 percent of the agriculture science teachers in the United States. Fourteen years later, an executive summary from the National Agricultural Education Supply and Demand Study found that 69 percent of the people who completed a licensed agriculture teaching program in college were women.
Denton ISD’s ag teachers said they saw a mix of men and women in their college classes, but getting a job was a different story.
When Weaver, who now teaches at Denton and Braswell high schools, applied for her first job in a rural district at age 21, the male superintendent and male ag teacher interviewed her.
“They drilled me on all these mechanics questions and thought they were going to stump me,” she said. “They didn’t stump me, but they did hire me.”
Some teachers said their families were supportive of their career path, but others couldn’t get past typical gender tropes. Even students are shocked when a woman walks into the barn on the first day of school.
“The boys think they can try to pull one over on us,” McCuistion said. “It’s crazy to think that we all have college degrees, yet they don’t think we know anything.”
The coin can flip the other way, though.
Charles Brown, the family consumer science teacher at Denton High, said he often gets questioned on his ability to sew or cook. But he’s seen progress over the years.
“The kids see that I’m a more rounded individual,” Brown said. “I’ve seen numbers in my classes go from having a token male to male enrollment actually increasing. It’s not a stigma anymore. You’re not taking a class to be a housewife. We’re gearing all our technical classes toward careers.”
Teachers say the district’s agricultural science program is growing even as the city becomes more urban.
“Denton is much more rural than people think,” said Alcorn, who teaches at Denton High. “There are those hidden nooks and crannies that you don’t think about. You go down certain roads and go, ‘Wow. There are cows!’”
But today’s ag programs aren’t just about the livestock.
The women can be teaching floral design classes one minute, then switch to agriculture mechanics the next. They go from small animals to large animals in the span of a day and sprinkle in some farm technology and horticulture for good measure. Students can pick up trade certifications or get a leg up on college coursework.
“It’s this giant umbrella that all these different niches fall under,” said Guyer High School teacher Laura Reed. “It’s showing people in an area like this that ag is more than just cows.”
McCuistion said this year’s ag department works well together, though she doesn’t necessarily attribute that to the gender makeup. Their personalities mesh well, something students have taken note of.
“They’re more than ag teachers. They’re counselors,” said Denton High senior and FFA vice president Hailey Brown. “Unlike the rest of school, it’s not just sitting down and listening to someone talk. You’re actually doing things. They’ve taught me about life situations. I’ve learned about myself and how to work with others.”
Complementary personalities are crucial in the ag world, Reed said. Sometimes, the teachers put in 100-hour work weeks to help with projects or take kids to livestock shows around the state. They partner with other school districts for transportation or call old mentors for tips.
They’re also the go-to handywomen on campus. They’ll field questions from teachers who have ailing pets or install pencil sharpeners in classrooms. Their barns have been used to store homecoming decorations and they’ve welded weight equipment for the athletic department.
“You can almost use the term jack-of-all-trades.” Baker said “Well, perhaps we should say ‘Jill-of-all-trades.’”
Job forecasters say the current shortage of ag teachers mirrors trends in the overall education field and is expected to continue. Denton teachers hope that isn’t the case for long and encourage students, both male and female, to look into teaching.
Just know that it won’t be easy, they say.
“It’s not for the faint of heart. You have to have grit,” McCuistion said. “We’re telling our kids every day that if this is a passion they want to pursue, they need to start now.”