In a generation where kids know more about software than hardware, agricultural science teachers have a critical role teaching students life skills, leadership and work ethic.

For the ag teachers of Mayes County, Oklahoma — where every ag teacher currently teaching in Mayes County was also born and raised in Mayes County — teaching students is more than just a job. It’s their opportunity to be part of a carefully cultivated lineage of people passionate about students and agriculture.

At Pryor High School, Walt Taylor has taught for 16 years and Jarrod Melugin for 11 years. At Locust Grove High School, Joe Cunningham has taught for 37 years and Ethan Propp has taught for one year. At Salina High School, Jack Crawford has taught for two years. At Adair High School, Shane Johnson has taught for seven years and Devin DeLozier has taught for 20 years. At Chouteau High School, Ray Pell has taught for 10 years. 

“I decided to teach ag because I was involved in the program growing up through high school and I loved the hands-on part of it dealing with livestock,” Melugin said. “I feel like it offers kids a lot of positive opportunities to be active and hands on.”

Drawn to the opportunity to help others in their community and to be a part of agricultural programs that changed their own lives, making a difference was a common theme in the goals of the Mayes County teachers.

“I originally wanted to be a youth pastor but then I felt like teaching ag was my calling instead,” Crawford said. “I wanted to make a positive impact on students lives, especially those who don’t have anything but are offered opportunities to make something of themselves through the ag program.”

Many of the experienced Mayes County ag teachers taught the younger teachers now taking over programs. At Adair High School, a member of the DeLozier family has taught in the ag program for 38 years. Devin DeLozier said the opportunity to build strong family ties and a special county fair experience is what brings many Mayes County natives back to teach.

“One thing that has drawn a lot of us back is our county fair in the fall,” DeLozier said. “It’s always been such a big deal and I’m sure all of us have had good experiences associated with the Mayes County Fair.”

For more urban areas of the county like Pryor, having a livestock project for the county fair allows students with loose ties to production agriculture to experience it more fully.

“We’ll get some kids that live in town but jump in with a livestock show project,” Melugin said.  “Four years later, you can’t even tell they weren’t raised in production agriculture setting.”

The evolution of the teachers’ involvement as FFA advisers over the years has transitioned from picking out livestock projects on local farms to being increasingly focused on leadership activities.

“We’re having to introduce a clientele that doesn’t know as much about ag to our programs,” DeLozier said. “Trying to figure out their place and their strengths when they come to us is often hard.”

With students spread thin between increasingly difficult curriculum and other activities like sports, it’s difficult to engage their time and talents for FFA, Cunningham said. For students in rural, low income areas like Salina, issues like where their next meal is coming from and how to afford official dress are more distracting issues the teachers must overcome.

“That’s why we focus so much on Career Development Events in our school,” Crawford said. “CDEs are about what the kids know and how hard they’ll work versus how much money they have and what their last name is.”

Leadership events have allowed the teachers increasing opportunities to steer their students into the work force, with Cunningham having over 100 students leave his program with significant college scholarships through the years.

“Student success is everything to us,” Pell said. “I think for a lot of us in here, the difference between ag teachers and other teachers is we will see a lot of our students after they graduate and to know that some of your kids are successful —that’s why I do what I do.” 

The legacy the Mayes County ag teachers are leaving is a mark of their dedication to student success and to the success of their fellow teachers. It’s a tradition any student or FFA member would be proud to be a part of.

“Tradition has run pretty deep in this county, all the way back into the ‘40s or ‘50s,” Cunningham said. “I’ve taught for 39 years total and had a little trouble paying the bills over the years, but I wouldn’t do it any different if I had it to do all over again.” £