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Old-School Ag Teacher Stepping Down

by Jerry Goshert

Published: Friday, May 13, 2022

After 35 years in teaching, Paul Baker, Westview Junior-Senior High School agriculture teacher and FFA advisor, is retiring at the end of this school year.

"It's just time," he said last week. "That's all. I want to do some other things in life."

At 58 years old, Baker feels the itch to put into practice what he has been teaching in the classroom.

"I don't know what my next jobs are going to be, but I'm not going to stop working," he said. "Part of me wants to go out and do some of the stuff in ag that I've taught about but haven't been able to do."

The Steuben County native grew up on a vegetable farm and wants to get back into that business. He also maintains a flock of sheep. He feels drawn by the desire "to fix the fence on my property" and do other farming tasks.

Like many other FFA advisors, Baker's life is driven by the demands of the FFA schedule.

"When you run an ag program at the high school level, you're hardly home a lot," he said. "You're taking students every opportunity you can, and you're trying to work with them to get them places, and sometimes in yourself you live through them. Any ag teacher who doesn't say they live vicariously through their students who are successful is a liar."

He describes himself as an old-school teacher and FFA advisor. While judging contests have their place, Baker believes that teaching practical skills, like engine repair and welding, will benefit students more in the long run.

That doesn't imply that Baker avoids such contests. In fact, Baker's teams have won nine state titles over the years. Westview is also a perennial champion in county soil judging.

Just last month, Westview sent two small engines teams to compete in the state contest. They brought home fourth and 10th place, respectively (see related story on page 24).

The small engines contest is one of the few FFA competitions that Baker really enjoys.

"It's very useful, very practical, what you would do in industry," he said.

When the Purdue University graduate started teaching over three decades ago, a majority of his students were from dairy farms. Baker trained them and took them to contests, but now he said there is just one student out of 90 that lives on a farm with cows.

"A lot of these contests just aren't as relevant to what we should be doing today in ag," Baker said.

He added that teachers should look at their respective communities and train students for the jobs they will someday have in that community.

"That's the old system and I believe it," Baker said. "My system isn't taking a lot of people on dairy judging trips to Denver, because they'll never actually own a dairy cow. That's my problem with that world."

Since the Amish represent a large portion of students in the Topeka-Emma community, he tries to offer training that will equip them for the type of jobs they will have one day.

"We assess what our students need," he said. "We talk about what their futures are, and a lot of my students are going to be mechanics."

He said students completing his welding program are qualified to work in a commercial shop where they can earn $50,000 or more per year. He said several of his students have followed that route.

Baker is unconventional in the sense that student enrollment doesn't mean as much to him as it might to some agriculture teachers.

"I'm not out there trying to recruit every kid that moves," Baker said. "That's not right. They may not want to be here. I only want to take students who want to be in ag."

During Westview's 52 years of existence, there have been only two ag teachers, Baker and Ralph Williams, who retired in 1993. Baker's tenure began the year he graduated from Purdue University and married his wife, Crystal. They tied the knot just a week after getting their diplomas.

Crystal works as a special education teacher in the Westview school system. The couple have two adult sons, Aaron and Kyle, and one grandchild—whom Baker expects to be bouncing on his knees sometime soon.

Baker has a second reason for leaving the teaching profession at this time. He said he has become frustrated with the state of Indiana's focus on career pathways.

"The state is changing some of the rules in ag ed, where students go to these pathways where, supposedly as a freshman, they decide what their career is going to be in eighth-grade," he said. "I'm sorry, I believe a general education is still more important."

He said students should be able to take a variety of classes that expose them to such things as woodworking, landscaping, animal science and other disciplines.

"The way ag is set up now, you have to stay in one direct area," he said. "So, it's all animals or all landscape or all mechanics."

Baker said he feels it is time for a younger person to come in and take over the program.

"I want to be out of here before I'm too stale to be effective," he said. "There's a point when you stay too long, and I don't want to be that person."

One of the things he will miss the most is seeing a student's eyes light up when they finally understand a concept he has been teaching. One lesson the thousands of students who have passed through his classroom over the years have taken away is the proper way to refer to soil.

"You don't call it dirt," he said, repeating that lesson once more.

Baker isn't worried about what he'll do in retirement. He has a commercial driver's license and occasionally drives a bus for Westview's athletics teams. He also started driving tour buses for a company in Shipshewana.

Then, there is his other pursuit, farming.

Baker has fond memories of working side-by-side with his father, who was also a teacher, on the family vegetable farm. As a youth, he disliked raising produce, but now it has become his passion.

Referring to the recent cold weather, he said, "I can't wait for a little better heat to get my hands in the ground and get things growing."

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