Image: Dr Barb Bannister, UNE Lecturer, is passionate about teaching agriculture in schools. Photo: David Elkins.
Australian schools are suffering a deepening drought in agriculture teachers.
While the shortage is not unique among STEM subjects, agriculture teacher and UNE lecturer Dr Barb Bannister is working to ensure agriculture remains a viable career choice for students and continues to drive innovation to tackle some of the world’s most pressing issues.
Learning about agriculture, Barb says, is learning how the world works, making it an essential subject for schools. “If you like to eat,” she says, “you like agriculture.” However, she thinks the subject is not well understood.
We have done more than most other sectors for conservation, sustainability and emissions reduction.
“There’s still a perception that agriculture is about ‘cows and ploughs’, to borrow Emeritus Professor Jim Pratley’s words. But as he says, we have done more than most other sectors for conservation, sustainability and emissions reduction.
“Agriculture teaches where things come from and how they’re made. It’s a great multidisciplinary subject for people who are really curious about the world. I think of it as the original STEM subject.”
A family tradition
Barb is a UNE lecturer, sector advocate, school agriculture teacher and principal. Born and raised into agriculture and agriculture teaching, Barb knows as well as anyone what specialist agriculture teachers have to offer.
“My dad was an ag teacher, my older brother was an ag teacher, my sister was an ag teacher, my dad’s brother was an ag teacher, and one of my cousins was an ag teacher,” Barb says.
Barb says following her family into an ag education career felt “like putting on a pair of comfy old socks.”
“I was immersed in this world as a very young child with many leaders within ag education coming for dinner. They were just dad’s friends,” she says.
“I had wanted to be a teacher for a long, long time and I really like working with children. I think it’s such a privilege to be part of that journey. I like hearing the fresh ideas, and provided it’s not disrespectful, I love it when people say ‘yeah, says who?’ or ‘how come?’ I take that as a personal challenge to respond to that in a way that satisfies that student.
“It’s the best seat in the house to watch a student, whether a high school student or university student, to watch them grow in their confidence and their capacity.”
Barb got her start at UNE, where she completed a specialist degree on offer at the time, a Bachelor of Education (Rural Science), which she followed up with a Master of Education and a Doctor of Education.
I had wanted to be a teacher for a long, long time and I really like working with children. I think it’s such a privilege to be part of that journey.
Barb’s first job was as an ag teacher at Bathurst High, and a few years later, still in the Western region of NSW, she helped set up and design the teaching and learning for Australia’s first online selective high school, a secondary school, piloted from 2009 to 2014 and gazetted – meaning permanently funded – in 2015. It’s a particularly notable achievement, given not much was known about online learning back in 2009, particularly for secondary students.
Since 2017, Barb has been back at UNE in a casual capacity and since 2021 has been preparing those with agricultural knowledge to be teachers.
“I teach curriculum methods – so my students already know about agriculture, and now they want to find out more about teaching. My dad, my brother and my sister all taught that curriculum method subject at various times at UNE, so I’m pleased to now have made the family grade and to actually get an opportunity to give back in that fashion. It’s great.”
If I can help to create some more ag teachers, I will be tickled pink, I’ll be so excited – just so excited!
So what makes a good agricultural teacher?
“Someone who’s creative, innovative and passionate about the future,” Barb says. “Someone who’s prepared to learn new skills and has a love of science and sustainability, and someone who’s prepared to answer the really big, global questions, like the questions posed at UNE’s recent Agmentation competition with the 2022 theme of Climate Adaptive Agriculture.
“Here students were asked to consider; how will we feed the world as it continues to warm? How can we produce less emissions from the ag sector? How might we identify the tools that add value to our farm businesses to increase resilience to climate variability? How might we protect biodiversity in times of climate crisis? These are the important questions for today’s agriculture classes.”
A professional leader
Passionate about maintaining the professionalism of the sector, Barb says it is a “huge privilege” to sit on a science syllabus Technical Advisory Committee that reviews any proposed changes to the syllabus as part of curriculum reform in NSW, and giving feedback to the writers.
She’s also on a working group to set up a similar environment to UNE’s Smart Farms at Charles Sturt University, to advise on how the data that will be collected through the farm can be used for agriculture education.
Barb has recently been appointed a permanent Teaching-Focused Academic role at UNE, and says she is looking forward to the opportunities to lead and shape the teaching effort at UNE.
“Teaching-Focused Academics are educational leadership roles across a whole bunch of fields at UNE,” she says. “The role involves some research around the scholarship of teaching and learning, but our main focus is to be excellent educators ourselves in the broad range of fields represented by these new appointments. I feel really privileged that I’ve been able to meet that grade.
“If I can help to create some more ag teachers, I will be tickled pink, I’ll be so excited – just so excited!”