Practical Advice for New Ag Teachers: Know the VIPs

August 20, 2013

The phrase "It's not WHAT you know, it's WHO you know" comes up quite often in Ag teaching. For new teachers just starting out or teachers changing schools, it is especially important. Because, let's face it, Ag teachers ask for a lot of favors and forgiveness during our careers. It's the nature of a job that requires 16 hour days, endless obligations, and involves lots of messy consumables, equipment, and students. 

So when I have the opportunity each fall to speak to upcoming apprentice teachers, I often ask them who they think the VIPs at a school are. Who are the top 3 most important people that they should get to know and be extra nice to? The answers are often typical: the principal, the vocational supervisor, your Alumni president. While those people are valuable to an Ag program, they don't make my list of VIPs for day-to-day survival as a Ag teacher. 

I'll tell you who they are and why. Then I'll mention ways to make sure they know who you are and that they think on you favorably.

VIP #1: The Head Secretary. Why? She's the one that always knows what is going on even when others don't. Want to know if there is going to be a schedule change today so you won't be elbow deep in the middle of a lab when a fire drill is called? Ask her. Want a heads-up on if the administrators have gotten their clipboards out and are doing walk-around evaluations? She knows. Want to know where the bodies are buried? Oh, yeah, if she's been there longer than 4 years, she's got that info. Need to know which substitute to trust with your really difficult class? Ask her. She's the one that will make sure your location change for your FFA meeting makes it into the announcements even though you technically didn't have the form filled out in time. Didn't get signed in on time because you were chasing down livestock that had gotten out...again? She's got your back. Need more whiteboard markers even though you are over your quota for the month and the office store was closed by the time you got finished at the CDE the night before? She'll hook you up. Get the picture? Good. Now go ask the secretary if you can bring her anything when you make your morning biscuit run. 

VIP#2: The Bookkeeper. The Keeper of the Funds. The Protector of the Balance. The Issuer of Purchase Orders. Be very, very nice to the bookkeeper. Make sure the first duty of your newly elected Treasurer is to introduce themselves to her and promise never to ask for print outs of your chapter account at 4:10 when you need them at 4:15 for the Treasurer's Report. If you are nice to the bookkeeper it will pay off. She will make sure she gets your FFA dues check cut and signed even though you asked for it at the last minute and your CDE team will be ineligible to compete if you don't post mark it today...and the post office closes in 15 minutes. She won't like it. She will probably sigh and give you the stink eye while you beg and promise it won't happen again even though you both know it will. But she'll do it. IF you've done your background work. She will discreetly let you know that the awards for the banquet ran your account into the red or that you are overdue turning in fruit sale money or that your greenhouse account needs to be spent before the end of the fiscal year or it just might get appropriated. She may not technically control your money, but she can make it easy or hard for you to be able to use it.

VIP#3: The Custodial Staff. Let's be honest. Ag teachers aren't known for being neat and tidy. Oh we have good intentions but when you and 28 students are elbow deep in potting soil or your school farm, I mean "Animal Science Laboratory", hasn't been dry in 3 weeks or you keep live chickens and rabbits in the shop...well, a certain amount of dirt is going to get tracked all over the linoleum they spent all summer waxing and resurfacing. Ask the custodian in charge of your room for a mop and bucket you can keep. They'll be happy to accommodate you. Invest in push brooms and large (55 gal.) trash cans and guard them from other teachers that "just need to borrow them for one class period". Have your students do the best they can to clean up the bulk of the debris from lab. Make sure they know where the dumpster is and that you send at least one student tall enough to open the top when they go to empty the cans. Your custodian is usually obligated to attempt to clean your room even if you try to tell them that they really REALLY don't have to today. Try to make their job a little easier. Don't leave the poultry judging practice cuts in the trash over the weekend. Bag up those old repro tracts before tossing them out. Teach your students coming in from outside to do the Ag Room Stomp to minimize the trail of mud and dirt leading from your room to other parts of the school. If you are nice (and frequently apologetic) to your custodial staff, they will be more willing to give you the entire roll of huge trash bags when you need it no questions asked.

Honorable Mention VIP: The Lunchroom Ladies. It will happen. One day you will realize about 10 minutes before your FFA meeting starts that you completely forgot about ice for the refreshments. In spite of all your planning, you will end up needing an extra 20 BBQ chicken plates at the last minute for your fundraiser. At least once, your banquet checklist will forget to include asking for forks and knives and you won't remember it until the day of. If you know your lunchroom staff ahead of time, these won't be major issues and will only require a little groveling. Also you will come to realize that they lunchroom has many wondrous resources that they are willing to let you have or use. For example, they have huge empty metal cans that come in handy for storing 15 sets of electrical wiring needlenose pliers, nails, or that make great course markers for Tractor Driving practice. As an added bonus, they will usually let you sneak in the backdoor to fill up on ice tea before your first block and will give you extra helpings of chicken nuggets and dessert. Be careful not to abuse your friendship though and store your their freezers. If you get them written up by the inspectors, you're toast.

So you may be thinking to yourself, that "I'm not a Suck Up." That's not what I'm saying. Sucking up is insincere. You now KNOW how important these people can be in your career so being nice to them is genuine. Ways to be nice: Have extra cake from your FFA meeting last night? Take them a piece. Got extra plants from the plant sale that need a home? Ask if they'd like them. In the middle of your fruit sale? Leave a crisp apple on their desk when you are passing through. Have your floral design students give them projects from class. And most of all, ALWAYS ask how they are doing and mean it BEFORE you ask for what you need. 

In summary, if you want to know how to get things accomplished at your school these are the people you should know and take good care of.  They know the administration without being administrators. They make the school run. Often they are unappreciated and overworked. You make their job easy and they'll make your job easy. 

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