Cultivating Confidence

Modoc HS Ag Instructor Sprouts Inspired Students

While some farmers sow crops, others plant ideas.

Even though the agricultural sector is booming in California, the state is facing a shortage of ag teachers — a nationwide, decades-long famine that has hindered workforce development. Yet, in rural Modoc County, one instructor is fighting back by inspiring the next generation of budding ag leaders.

“My favorite part is definitely the kids,” says Modoc High School Ag instructor Dominique DeMoss. “That’s why I became a teacher… It’s great seeing the growth of kids in the program.”

DeMoss was a driving force behind a Strong-Workforce supported effort to take the school’s ag program to the next level. According to the instructor, “I don’t think I could do anything different. I think I will be involved in some form of CTE education forever!”

Yet, according to DeMoss, becoming a CTE teacher was a total surprise. Initially, she went to California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, to become a biology major, but ended up hating it. Since the school produces nearly half of all new ag teachers in California, DeMoss became intrigued.

“I actually had a friend who told me that there was a shortage of CTE teachers and that I should consider becoming one,” recalls DeMoss. “I thought that was silly, but he told me, ‘You should just shadow for one day.’”

At the insistence of her friend, she visited a nearby high school ag program and didn’t need any more convincing. “I just fell in love with it,” she says. “So I ended up switching to ag science.”

While she admits that at first, teaching was “terrifying,” by the time DeMoss finished her student teaching term, she realized that she’d stumbled on her dream job. She says, “After the first year, I’d definitely say it’s gotten easier!”

Now in her fourth year of instructing, DeMoss says she’s right where she’s meant to be, and she loves that no two days are ever the same. DeMoss teaches a variety of classes, including ag biology, which is based around hands-on labs. “They’re really fun,” says DeMoss. “The kids get into it, and they’re out of their seats and doing things.”

One student favorite is the horticultural class, which takes place in the school’s brand-new and soon-to-be geothermal-heated greenhouse. From sprouting seeds to amending the soil and selling garden starts, learners are constantly busy taking the lead on projects.

“Once they’re involved in the process, they have ownership of it, and they really enjoy that,” beams DeMoss. “I have a kid who’s like, ‘My job is to water.’ He takes pride in that.”

Meanwhile, floral classes are busy filling monthly bouquet subscriptions and orders for weddings, community functions, and award dinners. From arranging floral designs to event planning, students apply their skills in the real world.

DeMoss especially enjoys teaching food science, where students take high-level concepts into the kitchen. The hands-on learning, she says, produces a great chemistry lesson, in addition to a tasty treat. “We’re going to make peanut brittle and look at the liquid phase, and then when it starts to get that hard crack, we’ll look at the phase changes,” explains the instructor. “I also have to get a sample, which is good and bad sometimes.”

But the sweetest part of the job, according to the instructor, is integrating ag leadership with Future Farmers of America (FFA), facilitating student trips and participating in competitions and conferences. “I love those days because it’s teaching but in a different way,” says DeMoss. “You get to know the kids… You put them in a van together, and it’s a whole different ballgame.”

Former student Cody Sphar misses those days. Among his fondest memories are going to FFA competitions with his favorite instructor.

“DeMoss was probably my biggest supporter,” recalls Sphar, who confides that, back then, “my issue was my self-esteem.” A once-shy student, Sphar says DeMoss pushed him past his comfort zone during his junior year by encouraging him to sign up for a speaking competition. “At the time, I probably hated it,” admits Sphar. “I fought tooth and nail.”

But in the end, Sphar actually won the regional competition for extemporaneous public speaking, where he put his ag knowledge and ability to think on his feet to work.

“I’m glad she fought me on that,” Sphar recalls. He says if it weren’t for the pandemic, he would have competed at the state level. And while it’s disappointing that circumstances cut his competition streak short, he says he still came out a winner.

“I can go out and actually talk to new people better than I ever could have,” says Sphar. From giving a wedding toast to a recent job interview, the grateful grad says he’s become a confident public speaker. “I can do all these things that I could never have done before FFA.”

For the proud instructor, nothing is more rewarding than watching students like Sphar blossom.

“You feel like you’re actually making a difference,” says DeMoss, who credits the unique ag environment for helping non-traditional learners open up. “You can reach kids that other teachers can’t reach any other way, just because they’re in a hands-on class.”

In fact, because of DeMoss, Sphar sparked a passion for ag education during his senior year internship. He helped teach welding and ag food science to his peers, and he’s thankful that his instructor let him test-drive his interests. “She helped me dial in, through trial and error, what I want to do now.”

Currently, Sphar works a hay baling equipment job while earning an associate degree and Heavy Equipment Operator Technician certificate from Butte College. And one day, with industry experience under his belt, he would like to teach ag education.

“There is such a shortage, and that’s not good,” says Sphar about the need for CTE instructors in agriculture. “That’s one of the main reasons why I wanted to pursue ag education.”

It’s always gratifying for DeMoss when a student is inspired to return to teach. Even apart from the nationwide CTE teacher shortage, ag educators are perennially in demand. “There are some schools that just always have an opening,” she confides. “It’s heartbreaking and challenging.”

Sphar looks forward to joining the ranks of educators one day, and he’s surprised at how far he’s already come. Though he never thought college was “his thing,” he’s now proudly persisting toward his degree. He says that without the roots he grew at Modoc High School, he wouldn’t have found his true calling or made the jump to higher ed.

“Having that passionate teacher behind you plays a very important role,” says Sphar. “FFA is such an amazing thing… I hope more and more kids do it.”

As for DeMoss, it’s grads like Sphar that keep her in the greenhouse.

“I love my job,” says the pleased CTE instructor. “It’s definitely a lot more fun than just being a general teacher.

“I don’t think I’d want to do anything else.”

Determining why agricultural educators are leaving the profession and how to increase the retention rate, Jay Solomonson, Iowa State University,

California Agriculture Education,