Monroe County’s Female Agriculture Teachers Prepare the Next Generation of Graduates
Photos by Heather Craig
SAC teacher Kayla Eaton (left) and Hamilton Attendance Center (HAC) teacher Jennifer Terrell are pictured at one of downtown Amory’s pocket parks.
Amory Career and Technical Center teacher Warner Creekmore (left) lectures visiting Amory fifth graders about photosynthesis and the greenhouse effect.
HAC teacher Jennifer Terrell (right) helps freshman Terra Quinn inspect the penetration of her weld. Quinn is HAC’s first female National FFA Organization welding team member.
Left to right: Smithville Attendance Center (SAC) teacher Kayla Eaton and National FFA Organization officers — juniors Cate Dill and Jamilynn Reeder and seniors Kirsten Cooper and Isabella Robinson — discuss transplanting peppers.
SAC freshmen Lillyan Madrid (left) and Izac Brown transplant cayenne pepper seedlings.
While men have dominated America’s agricultural classrooms for decades, three women are leading the specific secondary instruction in Monroe County.
Twenty years ago, a mere 14% of secondary agriculture teachers in the U.S. were women. In the time the University of Arizona conducted a study exploring why women face obstacles and barriers to becoming agriculture teachers, that number only grew to 22%.
Of all the reasons researchers had for this occurrence, perhaps the most compelling observation these they made was women teaching agriculture faced artificial barriers in what is traditionally a male-dominated field. The study concluded that these barriers came from the long-held belief that agriculture teachers were expected to be male for the unsurprising reason that they always had been.
Today, Mississippi’s Monroe County is no stranger to female agriculture teachers. It now has three women leading the three agriculture programs offered at its schools.
This high representation by female teachers is not remarkable simply because of their gender. These women are not merely breaking gender barriers in their field, they are doing so with as much education and experience as any agriculture teacher could possibly offer.
When Kayla Eaton began teaching at Monroe County School District’s (MCSD’s) Smithville Attendance Center about five years ago, she brought more than a master’s degree from Mississippi State University (MSU) into the classroom. After growing up on a farm, she knew agriculture “is so much more than farming.” She relies on that belief to help her instruct in a way “students will get an understanding for work ethics and skills that will help them in their life, whether they get a job in agriculture or something else.”
Drawing from a wealth of personal knowledge from her childhood, her current experience with her husband on their farm and guidance from her mentors — her parents, Charles and Karen Marshall, and MSU professor Jacque Deeds — Eaton guides her students in everything from welding and beef production to starting plants from seeds and selling them to the public.
Eaton said she enjoys the variety of Mississippi’s agriculture curriculum.
“The students get to learn so much in one year of class,” she said.
Eaton saw early success in her position. After only a year of work honing her own teaching philosophy, she was awarded the North Mississippi Rookie Agriculture Teacher of the Year Award. She says she has received nothing but community support since that first year and looks forward to seeing her program grow even more.
“If things continue the way they have for the past five years, then I expect to continue to see my classes grow. Agriculture is important to everyone, and students’ learning in the class also helps to build their work ethic and prepare them for a career outside of school,” Eaton said.
Like Eaton, Jennifer Terrell began teaching agriculture five years ago. Becoming an agriculture teacher was a dream deferred — after graduating from MSU with a bachelor’s degree in agriculture science, Terrell was diagnosed with cancer and had to take an available local job.
She did not let the adversity of her illness stop her for long: “I had dreamed of teaching agriculture for years, so I returned to school to acquire a master’s degree in agriculture and extension education.”
Her persistence paid off when she was offered a job at MCSD’s Hamilton Attendance Center five years ago. There, she teaches at a campus located close to family living in Alabama, contributes her talents to the community and sees her efforts rewarded. Since her first year teaching, she was named STAR Teacher in 2018 and 2020 and Distinguished Agriculture Teacher in 2017, 2018 and 2019.
Terrell’s teaching goal is to move beyond any insecurities she may have about her own or her students’ knowledge with compassion and grace.
“I truly believe in offering students a safe place with no judgment or prejudice. They cannot learn or grow any other way. I struggled with insecurity myself when I began teaching. I knew a little about everything but not a lot about anything,” she said. “I had never been in FFA and knew nothing about it when I began. I felt that students may not respect me because I wasn’t a walking encyclopedia.”
Terrell’s initial self-doubt with teaching agriculture was rooted in the very problem for which she is now an answer: a lack of female presences in agriculture.
“FFA was not promoted or offered for girls at my high school during the time I attended,” she said.
Terrell soon realized her experience matched that of any agriculture teacher, male or female, when looking back on her own learning experiences.
“I have always had a passion for anything agriculture related,” she said.
“While attending Mississippi State, I worked at the vet school cleaning livestock stalls, dog kennels and even scrubbing commercial-size fish tanks. I worked for a veterinarian in Starkville where I assisted in surgery and learned to be a groomer. I also worked at the MSU dairy — my first real experience with large animals — and I loved it. As a student worker for MSU weed science specialist John Byrd, I was introduced to a love for plant and soil sciences as well,” she added.
While those experiences were the ones that originally moved Terrell toward teaching, they also helped her find her confidence as a teacher.
“I quickly realized that I had a love for anything agriculture and knew I wanted to map my career path in this field,” she said.
Terrell may have begun her teaching career fearing her students would not respect her, but she was soon given the advice that students “won’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”
“I feel that students know how much I care and are willing to learn anything from me and sometimes with me,” Terrell said.
She has seen her students and community respond to that teaching philosophy since her early days of teaching, both through donations and local volunteers reaching out to her program.
In addition to community support, Terrell and Eaton have both benefitted from beginning at their respective schools at the same time.
“We became fast friends and even faster learners on how to run our programs. We were both on second careers, and it was all new to us,” Terrell said. “[Eaton] was in FFA in high school but was unfamiliar with most of the FFA contests. We learned through rule books and collaborated on how to train our teams. We also shared ideas on classroom, shop and greenhouse management, sometimes daily.”
Eaton added, “Some of the things we have tried might not have worked on our own campus but work for the other one at her school.”
Both teachers were excited to welcome Warner Creekmore, the Amory School District’s (ASD’s) most recently hired agriculture teacher. She began teaching at Amory Career and Technical Center (ACTC) at the start of the 2019-2020 school year.
Like her MCSD colleagues, Creekmore is also beginning a new career after coaching tennis on a high school and college level. After leaving Blue Mountain College last year, Creekmore began teaching agriculture at ACTC as an outlet for her personal interest. Creekmore previously earned a degree in landscape architecture, which she used to help build a landscaping company in New Albany with her husband, Sam.
“My family farmed in the Mississippi Delta, so I have always loved growing and learning about crops,” Creekmore said.
Agriculture is such a part of her family’s fabric that Creekmore looks to them for guidance when searching for answers to her students’ gardening quandaries.
“My husband and my father are tremendous resources for my program. I rely heavily on my father for tips on our outside garden. I rely on my husband, Sam, for tips or cutting-edge knowledge in the landscape industry,” she said. “They are mentors to me for our program.”
Creekmore’s knowledge paid off in the first several months of her career at Amory, as her horticulture class established new traditions for the program.
“For the first time in Amory, our class planted paperwhite bulbs and amaryllis bulbs to sell at Christmas. This brought back so many fond memories for the people that purchased them,” she said.
Creekmore also said her classes planted a winter garden this year, another first at ACTC. The students grew radishes, carrots, broccoli and cabbage, and they produced herbs and fresh tomatoes in their greenhouse this spring.
“We have grown everything we have from seeds donated to our program by Walmart last August,” Creekmore said.
Seeing Creekmore in the presence of her students demonstrates how comfortable they are with her, proving that she is accomplishing her teaching goals.
“They feel at ease asking questions and receiving feedback. I am down to earth and easy to talk to,” she said.
Helping her students feel at home around her presents Creekmore the opportunity to offer them something they may need more than education: support. She said her favorite thing about working with students is the difference she can make in their lives.
“I have been placed in their life for a reason beyond horticulture,” Creekmore said. “I can show them patience, understanding and love when they may not experience that at home. I quickly realized that I have been given an incredible opportunity to make a difference in my students’ lives.”
Creekmore already sees the joy of teaching agriculture emerging. She particularly enjoys “watching the plants grow and the students’ excitement at that growth.”
Eaton feels a similar joy when she sees her students’ enthusiastic response when a concept “makes sense or clicks with them.”
Terrell’s teaching excitement comes from a similar place. She said, “I love to push students beyond what they believe are their boundaries, instill leadership qualities and watch them grow."
Creekmore, Eaton and Hamilton are all pleased to be part of the changing landscape of today’s agriculture education.
“Our strengths have complemented each other, and I could not be more grateful to have not just an agriculture teacher’s support, but a female agriculture teacher’s support as well,” Terrell said.
Eaton is proud to see the effect her knowledge has on students.
“Growing up in agriculture and being involved in it now, I love teaching our youth today about the importance of agriculture,” she said.
As all three teachers tended to their spring plant sales and summer gardens, Creekmore said she hopes to see their programs grow, believing “the possibilities in our future are endless.”