Indianapolis, IN — Ralph Johnson and Kevin Whalen have joined an elite class of 61 ag educators across the U.S. that were recognized at the 2016 National FFA Convention and Expo as recipients of the Honorary American FFA Degree for Teachers.
The distinguished award is given to teachers who have created high-quality agricultural education programs which inspire and motivate their students to strive for success.
Both Johnson and Whalen have been sharing their love of agriculture with their students for over three decades. Johnson teaches at Juda High School with an enrollment of just over 100 students while Whalen’s classroom is 214 miles northeast at Arcadia High School where he teaches grades 7-12.
Each of them credits their love of agriculture and chosen career paths to family and mentors.
Hard work and passion
Raised on a large livestock and dairy farm in Darlington, Whalen was among the delegates attending the 1981 Wisconsin FFA Convention in Green Lake.
“I was sitting between Arnold Cordes and Floyd Doering,” Whalen said. “I challenge a FFA member to not want to teach after having those two legends of agriculture influencing a sophomore!”
Whalen also had a solid ag background fueled by the passion of his ancestors.
“Ag runs deep in our family. Thomas Whalen came to Wisconsin in 1847 as a result of the Irish Potato famine and my wife’s family goes back to Blaze Gandera who settled on her family’s homestead in the 1870s,” Whalen said. “Her uncle was a charter member of the Arcadia FFA while my father was a member of the Darlington FFA in the 1950s.”
Whalen credits his father for imparting the importance of a good work ethic and a passion for his vocation.
“He loved farming and always wanted me to be involved in agriculture,” Whalen said. “His influence carries on into my classroom in the skills approach I use to teach. I always want students to gain a skill which is how he evaluated if a person was learning.”
The best way I can
Johnson also grew up on a farm in southern Wisconsin and learned the meaning of responsibility from his parents at a young age.
“They taught myself and my brothers and sisters the importance of hard work and doing that job the best way that I can,” Johnson said. “That has extended into my classroom as I expect my students to work hard, complete the task and to give it their best effort.”
Johnson tries to motivate his students by helping them to achieve things that may have seemed out of reach.
“An example might be a shop project. I teach the student the skill they need to do in order to operate the piece of equipment to make the project,” he said. “With practice and determination they create something that they can be proud of their accomplishments for the rest of their life and maybe even this leads to a career for them down the road.
“One of the most satisfying things in being a teacher is seeing a student grow in knowledge and character from the time that we first get them in class until they graduate high school and even beyond.”
Keeping ag fresh
Whalen says he tries to keep agriculture fresh and appealing to students by making it available at the entry level in 7th grade all the way up to AP Environmental Science with all eight areas of interest including animal systems, plant systems, agribusiness, food & product processing, natural resources, environmental services and power.
Johnson says he is constantly changing, updating and tweaking his curriculum.
“What I taught my first five years has dramatically changed compared to my last five years. This is because the dynamics of the students have changed,” he said. “Today there are fewer students who live on farms, so I teach less production agriculture than I did when I first started teaching. My courses have changed to ecology, horticulture, aquaculture/wildlife management, veterinary science, leadership and more.”
Whalen said the National Convention was doubly meaningful for his family. This year his daughter Geena was the first member of the Whalen family to earn the American FFA Degree.
“You know things are going well when a daughter achieves that level of excellence. And I’m appreciative how the National FFA organization recognizes effort over the long duration of a career,” Whalen said of his award.
Johnson said he had hoped to earn this prestigious honor while he was still teaching like two of his teacher mentors.
“Being able to win this award as they did is both humbling and satisfying at the same time,” Johnson said. “The experience of receiving this award at the 89th National FFA Convention, with my wife present (her first national convention) made it even more special.”
More than farming
Whalen believes that the ag industry is vital and growing.
“I try to stress to my students that there is a place for everyone,” he said. “All people should care and be involved in the industry of agriculture in some way, shape or form.”
Johnson says the message he tries to drive home with students is that agriculture is more than farming.
“I believe that farming is the most important part of agriculture but today’s farmer needs the help from so many other agricultural experts in order to do their jobs right – nutritionists, veterinarians, geneticists, mechanics, engineers, agronomists, truck drivers, farm hands, teachers, extension specialist…they’re all part of agriculture and there are many career opportunities,” Johnson said. “Many of my students will not work in an agriculture career, however, I want them to be ag literate and understand the big picture of American agriculture.”