Embracing the Art of Teaching Ag

Ag Educators Series

Life changed in spring 2020. People stopped going to work, the movies and restaurants. They even stopped hanging out together. It was literally a matter of life and death.

But ag workers kept working. You don’t get days off on a farm.

That includes school farms, like the one run by KaCee James, an ag teacher at Jayhawk-Linn High School in Mound City, Kan., about 80 miles south of Kansas City. The lambs still had to be fed, their bedding changed and the pigpens mucked out.

KaCee James, ag education instructor at Jayhawk-Linn High School in Mound City, Kan., and her students raise lambs like Patrick Maaaa-homes, who was born Jan. 19, 2020, the same day the Kansas City Chiefs won the AFC Championship and advanced to the Super Bowl.

“Yes, school is shut down in Kansas,” James said from her home in Mound City. “For the time being, I have three students taking care of the sheep and pigs. It’s not ideal since it’s a cooperative and everyone should be contributing, but we are trying to limit the number of people at the barn.”

In the finest ag tradition, her dad helped.

“I don’t have my usual (pet German) Shepard in crime here to work lambs with me,” she wrote in a recent social media post, “so Dad came out of sheep retirement to help me at the barn today. School farms only work when you have school.”

Growing up on a cattle and sheep farm in Princeton, Kan., James knew she wanted a career in ag. She went to Kansas State University after high school, where she studied agricultural communications, convinced she was headed for an ag lobbying career.

One of her mentors saw things differently and urged her to give K-State’s Ag Ed Club a whirl. She did, and never looked back.

After graduation, she first joined Doniphan (Kan.) West High School as an ag teacher, then Hiawatha (Kan.) High School before landing her current job at Jayhawk-Linn. There, she juggles agricultural exploration, agri-science, animal science, plant and soil science, advanced animal science and agricultural leadership for grades 7 through 12; manages the greenhouse and the school’s livestock cooperative barn, caring for six ewes, seven lambs and 17 pigs; carts students and the livestock to shows far and near; and serves as statewide FFA advisor. She’s also the state’s national FFA organization’s teacher ambassador.

“Being an ag teacher was never on my radar in high school,” she confessed. “I honestly didn’t think I was skilled enough to teach such a wide variety of subjects.” That’s clearly not been the case. She’s been honored as both the Kansas Association of Agricultural Educators’ Outstanding Teacher and its Young Teacher of the Year, proving that her mentor was right.

What makes her such a great teacher?

Kelley Thompson, public works office manager for the city of Ottawa, Kan., says James’s enthusiasm and work ethic born of myriad farm early mornings and late nights helped. As her mother, Kelley is admittedly not the most unbiased observer, but adds:

“I also think it’s how much she cares about her kids. She’s really passionate, always looking for new ways to teach them …. She’s taken them to stock shows as far away as Texas, to visit manufacturers, you name it, to keep it interesting and relevant.”

Manufacturers?

Her students typically understand the big picture of agriculture, James says, “but it’s the science behind it that they don’t know that I enjoy teaching the most. For example, what are those tanks that farmers pull behind the tractor in the field? What are the specific diseases we vaccinate for in cattle? What determines commodity prices, and how do farmers sell their products in a global economy?”

Armed with answers to questions like these, James’s students will be better prepared for whatever the future has in store.