Chris Johnston has an extensive background in agriculture. He grew up in Oklahoma where his family ran a cow-calf operation. He even did a stint as a steer wrestler and team roper in professional rodeo.
But he never really saw himself entering the agriscience teaching field until he was convinced to join an intro to agriculture education class at Oklahoma Panhandle State University in Goodwell, Oklahoma.
“I took that class and fell in love with it,” said Johnston, who was recognized on the floor of the Kansas House of Representatives on Tuesday, Feb. 26, in Topeka, for being named the Kansas Agriscience Teacher of the Year by the Kansas Association of Agricultural Educators.
Johnston – an agriscience teacher at Elk Valley Unified School District 283, was supposed to be recognized by the House on Feb. 15. However, his wife, Torrie Johnston, gave birth to the couple’s son, Kreason, and the special presentation had to be postponed to Feb. 26.
“We’re very proud of him,” said Jason Crawford, principal and superintendent of Elk Valley USD 283. “He brings it all. He’s connecting the passions of the kids with real-world learning.”
Elk Valley is situated in Longton in Elk County and serves 100 K-12 students. Johnston teaches exploratory agriculture, animal science, plant science, agriscience, ag welding, ag mechanics and agribusiness to students in sixth through 12th grades.
Part of what makes Johnston’s teaching unique is that he is able to individualize learning, he said. His biggest class has 13 students in it.
“I can differentiate the learning plans,” Johnston said. “I can get it to them at the level they understand. I don’t know what I did to get such great kids.”
Johnston has a special bond with his students, Crawford said. Often, he spends several hours with students – even on weekends – working on the school’s farm.
This is Johnston’s first teaching assignment. In fact, he had accepted the teaching position before he was finished with his student teaching in Hugoton. This is his third year teaching at Elk Valley.
When Johnston first started teaching at Elk Valley, there wasn’t a lot to work with, he said. He and his ag mechanic students have built many of the facilities the district now has in place – a pig barn, feeding floor, farrowing area, nursing area, pig show runs and a cattle barn.
Johnston used money out of his own pocket to buy sows to start the pig program at the school. Now, students can choose to raise a pig and show it. After a student shows the pig, he or she can sell the animal and keep the profits, Johnston said. The only cost students incur for the pig program is the feed bill.
The agriscience teacher and his wife raise cattle, too, so Johnston works with students who want to have a beef project.
Big things are on the horizon for Elk Valley, Johnston and Crawford said. The district hopes to in the fall of 2019 launch a boarding program for ninth- through 12th-grade students outside of the district who want to study agriculture at Elk Valley. The district would provide housing to students, and the students would become a part of the Elk Valley district and work alongside other kids doing ag projects and working on the school’s farm. Students would have an opportunity to go home on the weekends to be with family members.
This would be a destination public school option to help immerse students in an onsite ag program, Crawford said.
The program has potential to positively impact several things, Johnston and Crawford said.
For example, many of Kansas’ middle income families have left their rural roots to pursue other opportunities, according to Crawford. This has left many rural schools, including Elk Valley, struggling to adapt to the loss of enrollment. It also has limited Elk Valley’s sustainability to maintain and properly resource a school campus that has the capacity to serve more than 300 students.
The proposed ag program could bring more students to the school, as well as more college graduates who want unique teaching experiences and loan forgiveness, according to a document provided by Elk Valley.
“From our initial research, we have not found a public secondary school in Kansas that houses students during the week to be fully involved and successful in the time and requirements for these opportunities,” the document said. “This model has been successfully implemented in many rural communities in Germany while meeting the needs of the local community and affording unique opportunities to secondary students who have similar passions as their rural peers, but a desire and need to be with family in the city during the weekends.”
Besides a new baby boy, Johnston and his wife, Torrie, have a daughter, Tinsley, 3. Torrie Johnston is a farm loan technician.
Johnston plans to stay in the education field and is looking forward to upcoming projects in the district. He is happy that he stepped into Dr. Nels Peterson’s intro to ag education classroom in college and began his journey to becoming a top-notch agriscience teacher at Elk Valley.
“I feel like you get put in places where you’re really needed,” Johnston said. “I found out that I needed this place just as much as it needed me.”
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