Back to School: Ag teacher embraces technology and relationships
You could say that Oconto Falls High School Agriculture Teacher and FFA Advisor Walter Taylor has high expectations of himself and his ability to teach.
“I strive to be one of the best in the country,” Walter said in regard to his teaching program in the educational arena. He has connected with many in-state and out-of-state teachers on his teaching philosophy and dreams big when it comes to potential learning tools.
His drive and love of agriculture started at a young age because his grandma was the general leader of the local 4-H club near Howards Grove in Sheboygan County.
“I didn’t really have a choice but to be involved,” he laughed. “My grandparents were a big influence on my upbringing in agriculture.”
Now, the ag teacher is in his 10th year of teaching. He spent five years teaching at Plymouth before advancing to Oconto Falls High School.
His website, ocontofallsagzone.org, serves as the information hub for everything he does.
“I’ve always had a website,” explained Walter. “Education is not a secret, so I like to have my information where everyone can access it.”
Since he embraces technology in his classroom, COVID-19 didn’t have much impact on his teaching methods.
“The biggest change was adding Zoom and not having everyone in the same place,” he said. “It took us a little while to figure out the attendance element, but otherwise the information was already available online and the virtual pieces were already established.”
Homework, assignments, videos and resources are listed on each lesson page of the website making it accessible to students at any time. It also helps Walter and his fellow teachers stay connected. He uses the strategy of ‘hyper docs’ using Google Slides embedded into his website. For this method he coined the name ‘Learning Log.’
Like many teachers, Walter uses a CleverTouch. The device, which looks like a large flat-screen TV, allows for an interactive learning environment and, if needed, students can participate out of the classroom.
“This is my favorite tool because it allows us to do so much,” said Walter. “It has 10 different touchpoints and allows multiple people to use it at once. Everything I teach stems from my website and is shown on this screen.”
Not only does Walter fully embrace technology, he also embraces local relationships such as those with FFA Alumni and the Oconto County Farm Bureau.
“It’s a small community when it comes to ag,” he said. “It’s really the same crew for most [agricultural] events but it’s nice because we know each other and the resources we have out there.”
By leveraging relationships locally, Walter can connect students to a variety of avenues for projects, jobs and Supervised Agricultural Experience projects.
Those SAEs are his favorite lesson to teach right now.
“It doesn’t seem that exciting – to talk about options for students to pursue for projects or potential careers but it is,” he said. “It’s a fine balance of what we need and what they are interested in. To see their gears moving on what they may want to do in the future and to see where they end up is cool. It’s fun to play a role like that.”
Walter took a different direction than he anticipated when it came to choosing a career, which might explain his passion for helping students select paths for SAEs.
“I had always loved landscaping and plants, so I figured I would get into that,” Walter explained. “But after a talk with his mentor and agriculture teacher Art VanderWaal, I realized I liked everything about agriculture. I remember him saying to me, ‘You like everything about agriculture, so why don’t you become an ag teacher and teach it so you get to do a little bit
It didn’t take much to convince him that was a good plan; the last part was figuring out where to go to school. He started attending UW-River Falls in fall of 2006.
That decision played a big part in his next life chapter.
“At first it was a bit overwhelming because I was five hours from home,” he explained. “After a while, I decided I was spending too much in gas money and started staying on campus and the rest is history.”
Walter joined Alpha Gamma Rho, a professional agricultural fraternity on campus, and built long-lasting relationships – ones that he still has today.
“I use my AGR connections all the time,” he said. “I learned so much from everyone and still do. I love that I can use them as resources. For example, Kyle Much is someone I met through AGR and now he works as a crop consultant. This year, he was willing to assist with our test plots at school. Previously Al Shannon, another connection, had coordinated the plots when I was at Plymouth.”
His connections from school also stem through Farm Bureau.
“I love the WFBF Annual Meeting and Young Farmer and Agriculturist Conference because I get to reunite with people like Al, who is a Dunn County member and Kyle, who is a Waupaca County member, and others who I haven’t seen in a while,” he said. “It’s always worthwhile taking off of work and going to connect and network.”
Another event he never misses is the Wisconsin Ag in the Classroom Bus Tour.
“I usually try and recruit others to attend with me, especially some staff who don’t have a connection to agriculture. It’s always eye-opening to them.”
As YFA chair for Oconto County, he uses connections to recruit and connect people to his school’s ag program and Farm Bureau.
“I already knew about Farm Bureau when I got here but I was heavily recruited by Ken Harter to be active,” Walter explained. “I bring my computer to every board meeting and try to bring technology to Farm Bureau, too. I especially enjoy the promotion and bridging the gap with farmers and the school.”
One idea Walter hopes to implement soon is to take FFA members on tours to Farm Bureau farms on the way to WFBF’s FFA Farm Forum. His hope is that this initiative would continue to build bridges between FFA and Farm Bureau.
Whether through technology in the classroom or relationships within the community, it is no secret that Walter is well-connected. While the expectations he has for himself as an educator remain high, Walter is proud of the agricultural program at Oconto Falls High School and the students who have gone on to become community leaders.
“It’s important as educators that we remember that we need to work with all students, not just the ones who look like they are going to be successful. We can’t afford to underestimate their potential as we build agriculture’s future.” Walter said, “A student graduating from Oconto Falls High School that has taken advantage of the opportunities that this program offers will be a valuable citizen for our society.”
This article appeared in the Aug.-Sept. edition of WFBF's Rural Route