After 29 years of teaching agriculture at Hinckley-Big Rock High School, Gary Blankenship can finally relax.
He retired in June, and on Aug. 13, Blankenship was named the state winner of the 2013 Excellence in Teaching award, which he received from the Illinois Association of Vocational Agriculture Teachers.
He recently talked to reporter Andrea Azzo about teaching and his future plans.
Azzo: What was the award nomination process like?
Blankenship: On April 1, somebody nominated me. My principal received a form saying I had been nominated, and he filled out a form about my teaching. There were 25 sections and 12 districts in the state. All districts met and were interviewed by teachers and a member of the Illinois State of Education. At a luncheon, five district winners were called on stage, and I was selected as the state winner.
Azzo: What did you do as an agriculture teacher?
Blankenship: One thing I always did was promote kids in Future Farmers of America. We also built a greenhouse at the high school which cost $83,000; the money was raised without using school or tax money. It was all raised through donations. The third thing I tried to do is foster business partnerships, like at Ozzie’s Greenhouse. Kids would go there two days a week to learn horticulture skills.
Azzo: Why do you think it’s important for students in this generation to learn about agriculture?
Blankenship: It’s recognized that agriculture is the basis for a lot of other types of jobs. It’s tied into so many different areas. One thing we really pride ourselves in is hands-on learning for students. A lot of the kids I had went on to become veterinarians, mechanical engineers and landscapers. To me, it’s a sound foundation of skills and knowledge about the way things work.
Azzo: How common are agriculture teaching jobs?
Blankenship: There are about 300 agriculture teachers right now in Illinois. There’s actually a shortage of them. They are high in demand.
Azzo: Do you have a favorite memory about teaching?
Blankenship: I have thousands. There are kids who had an attitude, where nobody can control them. If you give them a hammer, nails and a saw, they find they can take their frustration out. They find purpose there, because they have really good mechanical skills that no one has noticed before. It’s those kinds of successes that make me feel good because you’re doing something right.
Azzo: What will you do now that you’ve retired?
Blankenship: I’ve got a couple of tractors I’m going to fix. I’ve got an old Chevy truck I’m working on. I do volunteer work for the food pantry. I have things at home to do. There are other people that have jobs for me to do. You always stay busy. You never say, ‘Well, I’m going to be a couch potato and watch TV for the rest of my life.’ I will stay busy.