Laura Pugh Parker’s path could have taken many different directions, but the Bandys High School ag teacher knows she is where she was meant to be, doing what she meant to do. And, she knows one teacher can make a big difference.
The wife and mother of two, who counts hundreds of current and past ag students as her own, too, was recently recognized as the National Association of Agricultural Educators’ Region V Outstanding Agricultural Education Teacher Award recipient. It was the honor of a lifetime.
“I’m still in disbelief,” Parker said. “I look at so many ag teachers in the state and see so many doing great things, and you think ‘I’m not there with them.’
“There are around 550 ag teachers in the state so I was shocked that I was selected as the N.C. Outstanding Agriculture Teacher last year,” she added. “That application was then sent on to the national level in which one agriculture teacher from each of the six regions is recognized, and I was so surprised to be recognized on that level!”
As we celebrate National FFA Week, it seems fitting to feature someone like Parker who is helping guide and develop the next generation of ag leaders.
Parker grew up in Alleghany County surrounded by agriculture with grandparents on one side who were dairy farmers and later raised beef cattle and tobacco farmers on the other. Initially she thought she wanted to pursue a degree in interior design, but after attending the Institute for Future Agricultural Leaders at N.C. State University that changed.
She recalls the camaraderie, cooperation and the feeling of community that were part of the Institute and shared by the staff and attendees.
Specifically, meeting and engaging with Dr. Jim Flowers, former department head in ag education at NCSU, during the institute became a turning point in her life and career aspirations.
“He is a major reason that I decided to become an ag education teacher,” she said. “He wanted to see students achieve in whatever they wanted to do and that was inspiring to me and I wanted to be part of his program at State.”
It is a philosophy that guides Parker as she works with students today.
She is proud they can use the skills cultivated in the ag education classes and FFA programs “to advance agriculture in the state.
“It’s neat to help kids find their passion and then seeing them fly,” she said. “I enjoy helping them become voices and advocates for agriculture. It’s the most rewarding career ever.”
Ag education classes today draw a range of students – some who grow up on a farm and those who live in cities. The classes offer life lessons each can benefit from as producers and consumers.
“For those who don’t come from an ag background, they will start to realize the connection between farming and food. They realize the sacrifices that producers put forth to ensure we have protein and plants,” she said. “They see that agriculture is more than sows, cows and plows and I hope they all start to see where they fit into the industry.”
For the students with ag backgrounds and who may be interested in an ag career, she can see the maturity that comes from real life work experiences.
“I see the growth and development that comes with the responsibility of caring for animals,” Parker said. “Watching these kids invest in breeding decisions and learning time management from getting up before school to feed their animals, it makes them so much better prepared for whatever comes next.”
Part of the ag education curriculum includes a focus on finances and record keeping – skills that serve anyone well. Parker also works with kids to develop a career map to provide a strategy for success.
“We focus on the here’s where I want to be, and then work with them to figure out what they need to do to get there,” she said. “I remind them that Rome wasn’t built in a day and we have to work hard for the things that matter to us.”
Parker said she has found a supportive community in Catawba County that continually reminds her she is where she is supposed to be.
“We have a saying at Bandys and that is ‘row the boat,’ meaning that we will achieve great things when we work together,” Parker said.
Teaching and living through the pandemic has reinforced the values that first drew Parker to ag education in the first place and fits with the Bandys motto. To work through the challenges of the pandemic, Parker created a resource guide she shared with other teachers in the state and helped to build a collaborative resource to share items that were created or found that could be used by all. These resources included videos, interactive notes, worksheets and even labs that could be completed remotely.
“Our most valuable resources are each other and being able to build each other up and support one another. And I think the pandemic has taught us even more how important this is with students and other ag teachers in the state.”
Graduations are bittersweet, but Parker recognizes it’s her students’ next step to realizing their dreams.
“You don’t know how many pieces of my heart leaves every year when they graduate,” she said. “I want them to know when they leave here how much they are valued as an individual and I want the very best for them whatever path their lives take and whatever they do.”
A graduate of Alleghany High School, Laura earned a bachelor’s degree in Agricultural Education and a minor in Animal Science from N.C. State University and a master’s degree from N.C. A&T State University in Agricultural Education. She also earned her National Board of Professional Teaching Licensure in 2011.
About the NAAE Award
The NAAE Outstanding Agricultural Education Teacher award program recognizes active NAAE members who are at the pinnacle of their careers, conducting the highest quality agricultural education programs. It rewards them for their excellence, leadership, and service in the agricultural education profession. It highlights each teacher’s ability to draw upon community resources to provide relevant and meaningful educational experiences for all students. Award recipients demonstrate how they are innovators and catalysts for agricultural education. As a special project of the National FFA Foundation, Tractor Supply Company and Caterpillar co-sponsor the Outstanding Teacher awards.