SMITHVILLE, Ohio — Learning the steps to the scientific method — predictions and tests and controls and formulating hypotheses — can be downright complicated and boring.
But not in Tony Stoller’s classroom.
In the agriscience lab at Smithville High School, the educator walks his students through the process one step at a time as they devise poultry feed experiments to bring their learning to life.
Even when the teens throw out silly ideas, like feeding the birds breakfast cereal or Cheetos, their teacher never bats an eye.
“What was your thinking behind that?” Stoller quizzes frequently, pushing the students to talk about their ideas, to think critically yet not criticize, and to have a good time.
He calls them each by name and listens closely to what they say. And then he thanks them for their input.
In this classroom, life lessons about respect, teamwork, collaboration and participation are veiled in academics and chicken feed.
Stoller says he’s just doing his job.
Stoller, who at age 29 is one of six teachers recognized this year as the best and brightest young agricultural educators nationwide, never imagined he’d be a teacher, let alone an award-winning one.
A graduate of neighboring Norwayne High School, Stoller grew up raising beef and veal calves and farming 200 acres of crops on the family farm, and taking interest in his mother’s family’s business, W.G. Dairy Supply.
He took ag classes all through high school and was a FFA chapter officer, even a district president.
But at the end of every day, Stoller just wanted to be a farmer.
College would have to come first, though, and Ohio State’s agricultural education program drew him toward a path with many options, Stoller said.
During his student teaching experience in western Ohio, a light bulb lit and grew brighter in the young man’s mind. He calls his time in the Parkway district an awesome experience, a lot of fun.
“I knew right then I wanted to teach, that I’d give it a whirl,” he said.
“And I haven’t made it back to the farm yet.”
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In 2003, Stoller returned to his roots in Wayne County when Smithville’s longtime ag teacher retired.
Stoller was met at the door by an agricultural education curriculum that had a strong classroom focus but no organized FFA chapter and no individual student projects.
Only six students were enrolled.
The community was a bit hesitant, too.
“Most of the farmers in the community were never in the [FFA] program, so I had to sell it all to them and their kids,” Stoller admits.
In the first year, he built the program to more than 60 students, bolstered by his own excitement and momentum from his first two years as a teacher in western Ohio.
“That’s what I had to work with. I picked it up and rolled from there.”
Stoller organized the program’s freshmen and sophomores into a revitalized FFA chapter and quickly showed them the ropes.
“They were clueless what [FFA] was supposed to be about. They didn’t have older brothers or sisters to model,” Stoller related.
“But I brought ideas for an effective chapter and once I told them, the kids ran with it and shaped their program,” he said.
“I want the kids to do their own work with their ideas, their activities, their interests. They can pick and choose what’s fun for them.”
It’s turned out the students’ interests are all over the board, and it’s refreshing to see what projects come out of the science classes Stoller teaches, he said.
The majority of Smithville students are “rural, but with no ag background,” according to Stoller. So every fall he starts again with freshmen and the basics of animal science and builds from there.
“You can’t get upset that they don’t know about agriculture,” Stoller said, noting his goal of improving agricultural literacy in the community.
“You realize most of these kids aren’t going into production agriculture anyhow. But if they end up as a doctor or lawyer and have at least a basic understanding of how agriculture is … The big picture is important,” he said.
His curriculum also includes agribusiness courses, plus plenty of hands-on lessons about electricity and welding and woodworking, and sessions on turfgrass science.
Stoller has listened to the community advisory council, made up of farmers, businessmen, bankers, and faculty members, to guide his program development.
One of that group’s biggest pushes has been toward more business and accounting lessons, plus the addition of classes that explore the green industry. The next step will be adding biotechnology and food science courses, he said.
“We’re really diversifying the program to recruit a different group with different goals. I’d lose a big group of kids if I only offered shop,” Stoller said.
Today’s Smithville FFA program is thriving, with 89 students participating and each carrying his own individual project, whether it’s working 3,000 hours a year on a local dairy farm, raising and selling mums or garden produce, or taking a market hog to the county fair.
“I love watching these kids grow their interest into jobs or starting their own business. They’re springing an idea and developing that into a career, to me that’s really neat,” Stoller said.
In fact, that entrepreneurial spirit is one of Stoller’s teaching focuses, along with professionalism, setting personal goals, and life skills development.
“I could tell stories all day about the kids coming out here and the great things they do,” he said.
Neat things like earning state proficiency awards, putting the chapter back in the ranks with State and American FFA degrees, becoming ag teachers themselves.
“I don’t really see it as anything I’m doing. I think if you give the kids an opportunity, they will take advantage of it.”
Stoller is humbled by the National Association of Agricultural Educators’ award and the attention that’s come with it.
Every other ag teacher in his network has the same philosophy, the same drive, the same love for teaching and agriculture as he has, he says.
He thinks he’s nothing special.
To him, he’s just doing his job.