For Patricia Eshelman, a biology teacher at the Bolivar-Richburg Middle/High School in Allegany County, it started with a simple goal — she wanted to teach students about the food they eat and where it comes from.
“Although we’re a rural community, I don’t have many farm kids in my class,” said the Bolivar-Richburg Faculty Association member, noting that it’s important to teach life skills like garden cultivation and food preservation.
After bringing the course idea to her principal, he had a counteroffer. “He asked if I could take the lot next door and turn it into an outdoor living classroom,” said Eshelman. Four years later, Eshelman got her class — Sustainable Living and Agriculture, a course focused on agricultural life skills like gardening and food preservation — and she helped create the district’s Wolverine Environmental Center, dubbed the “WEE-Center,” an outdoor-living classroom.
The work led to Eshelman becoming the 2021 New York Agriculture in the Classroom Teacher of the Year. As an award winner, she’ll travel to Des Moines, Iowa for the national conference at the end of June, if virus restrictions allow. “It’s a good feeling when you find your people,” said Eshelman of the upcoming conference. “I’m excited to meet other people who want to connect students to the natural environment, their food and agriculture.”
Eshelman’s students provide eggs and produce to the school cafeteria through the WEE-Center chicken coop and class garden. Students host an annual community pancake festival showcasing maple syrup they produce by tapping trees on the WEE-Center property. A WEE-Center farm stand will eventually sell student-grown produce.
“I wasn’t alone in winning this, I’ve had lots of community support,” said Eshelman. Community guest speakers often visit her classes; and BRMHS Principal Dan Quartley nominated her for the award. “In my opinion no one deserves the honor of Teacher of the Year more,” Quartley said. “Her hard work, determination, vision and love of agricultural science has made all the things that the WEE-Center represents possible.”
The annual NYAITC TOY award recognizes outstanding educators who use agricultural literacy materials and activities in the classroom.
For more information about the program, visit agclassroom.org/ny.