When John Daniels stepped on stage last week as one of the seven finalists for the 2024 Golden Owl Award, he had no idea that he would actually be announced as the winner minutes later.

Daniels, a 16-year secondary education teacher at Belle Plaine Community School District, received the award at the 2024 Iowa FFA Convention in front of a crowd of over 6,500 student members, advisers and agricultural partners. Through the award, Daniels was officially recognized as Iowa’s top agriculture educator of the year and received a $3,000 grand prize.

“It was very surreal,” he said. “We’re a close-knit group of teachers, so I’m well aware of the wonderful programs and work that other teachers are providing in the ag-ed world. We are all doing great things so to be singled out is very humbling.”

Golden Owl John D

At Belle Plaine, agriculture education has grown over the past few years and currently includes varied classes on plant and animal sciences, agricultural business, horticulture and agricultural welding, among several others. Daniels teaches students in grades 8-12 and notes the importance of agriculture education in Iowa and how it can help strengthen valuable skills for students.

“Agriculture education allows students to make connections between what they’ve learned in general education classes and a real-world context,” he said. “Students have applied what they’ve learned in chemistry to soil and plants in ag ed. They have used math and business skills in ag business projects. We are teaching useful skills that are crucial for careers and staying connected in today’s global society.”

Daniels also serves as the advisor for the school’s FFA chapter. FFA, a career and technical student organization (CTSO), focuses on building leadership skills through agriculture projects and activities and allows students to continue making connections between the classroom and hands-on learning. Daniels states that any student, even those who are not interested in pursuing agriculture as a career, can gain benefits from participating in FFA.

“FFA helps to enhance what skill sets students have learned,” Daniels said. “This can be a technical skill like plant evaluation, or it can be a professional skill like creating a resume or strengthening job interview techniques. FFA and CTSOs provide an outlet for students to hone their skills and see their use in the real world.”  

As an agriculture educator, Daniels stresses the importance of developing relationships with students and encourages new teachers to invest in the young people in their classes.  

“I love the opportunity to develop relationships with students,” he said. “My goal at the beginning of each semester is to make sure each student learns something every day of the semester, whether it’s a life lesson, career goals or how to conduct themselves. It is an investment of time, but I can only be successful as an educator if I make those connections with the students.”

With teachers like Daniels, the future of agriculture education in Iowa remains strong. But Daniels recognizes that it takes a collaborative effort between schools, communities and industry to keep things moving forward in agriculture education and other career and technical education (CTE) programs.

“Ag education and CTE are very powerful areas of education,” he said. “But teachers don’t need to do it alone. Find opportunities to partner with stakeholders and business leaders in your community. Reach out to parents to encourage their kids to try something new in CTE. Together, we can provide the opportunities for exploration and success.”