CASCADE - It has been a few years since Eric Tilleman was at the head of an ag education classroom.
He was a fixture in the halls at Cascade High School as the Ag Education teacher for 16 years.
But his passion for the profession never faded, even as he took a job as the Agricultural Education Specialist with the State of Montana.
Recently, he was named President-elect of the National Association of Agricultural Educators (NAAE), which gives opportunities to over 9,000 teachers across the country.
A big part of the organization’s mission is to attract and keep new ag teachers.
“We’re trying to get teachers into the classroom, trying to retain them, because we have a lot of teachers, they quit after three years,” said Tilleman. “So we had to figure out how to solve that issue.”
Tilleman will serve in a presidential capacity for three years, first as President-elect, then President, and then past president.
For three years he’s served as regional secretary and another three as vice president for Region One which encompasses Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Arizona, Nevada, California, Washington, Oregon, Alaska and Hawaii.
Tilleman, who also happens to be the fire chief in Cascade, isn’t just a pencil pusher at his job with the state or in his new role with the NAAE.
“The fun part about this job is I get to actually go into the classroom, help teachers, and sometimes they even let me teach a class while I show them some information,” said Tilleman. “So, I kind of get my fix.”
Tilleman says ag education programs are growing. He says in the last year, the seeds for eight new programs in Montana alone have been planted.
And agriculture is not just about sows, plows and cows.
“We’re hitting Agri science, we’re hitting precision ag,” said Tilleman. “We’re making sure our teachers are up to date.”
Tilleman says agriculture is different in Montana than other parts of the country, like Florida, but the basic principle of growing food and maintaining sustainability remains the same.
He says agricultural education is as important as ever.
“We are importing more agricultural commodities than we are exporting for the first time ever in the history of America. It is needed,” said Tilleman. “That is what makes us a sovereign nation is we’re not depending on other countries for food.”
Tilleman says he was thrilled to learn he had been selected for the position and looks forward to visiting all six regions of the organization over the next three years to see the diversity in the industry.
“The cool part about ag education is we have ag education teachers in inner-city Chicago and New York,” said Tilleman. “In ag education, the sky’s the limit. If you can get the ag education degree, it is a very versatile degree.”
Tilleman says another benefit of the new position with NAAE is recognizing outstanding teachers.
At the recent conference, two Montana teachers were honored from Region One.
Trevor Motley of Stevensville was the Ideas Unlimited winner while Joanna Williams of Hysham was honored with the Outstanding Service Citation.
Tilleman says nationwide there are usually about 900 ag teacher openings each year.
In Montana, he says all but two positions have been filled this year. He says many times schools will do their best to keep ag programs going.
“What we’re doing right now as kind of a stopgap is we’re hiring a lot of industry credentialed teachers. Which are helping us make sure we’re not losing programs,” said Tilleman. “We're helping to teach kids. But, again we have a little bit of a gap to get them up to what we’ve been doing with ag education as a whole.”