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Long-time educator brings agriculture to the classroom

HIGHLANDVILLE, MO. – Except for two years attending Murray State University in Kentucky, Tonya Claybrook has lived in Highlandville, Mo., her entire life. Tonya’s maternal grandparents, Orville and Lorene Green-way, owned 300 acres where they raised black Angus cattle. Tonya recalled how her grand-parents always had a huge, beautiful garden and she still has cherished memories of spending time with them on their farm. 

“My grandparents symbolized tradition, hard work, and a deep connection to the land,” Tonya said. “They would share a wealth of knowledge about farming practices in hopes of passing the knowledge down through several generations.”  

Tonya remembers the stories her grandparents frequently told and how they found joy in the life that farming provided them. 

“They were dedicated to their farming practices, and they in-stilled a profound appreciation for agriculture,” she said. Tonya cites both her parents and grandparents as great mentors and heroes.  “My parents and grandparents instilled a hard work ethic and a love for farming,” noted Tonya. 

Although her parents were not farmers, Tonya noted that they were always supportive of both her teaching and farming choices, and even celebrated her successes. 

“Their support and pride have been a great motivator,” said Tonya. And she is motivated. Tonya has a master’s in education and just completed her 25th year as an educator of fourth and fifth grades. 

Tonya said she became a teacher because of, “…the opportunity to shape the future by imparting knowledge, skills, and values to every student. I can have a significant impact on my students’ lives.” 

She was recognized as Southwest Missouri Regional Teacher of the Year 20-21 by the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, given a Teacher of the Year for National Excellence in Teaching about Agriculture Award for 2021 in Missouri by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, was given the 2021 National Agriculture in the Classroom Organization for Teaching Excellence, and a 2022 American Farm Bureau White-Reinhardt Teaching Agriculture Award.

As noted by the MO Farm Bureau in March of 2021:

Tonya was recognized by Farm Bureau for her “Fabulous Fowl” unit and schoolyard chicken coop. Utilizing these classroom tools, students learn the parts of an egg, the life cycle of a chicken and responsibilities involved in caring for 12 hens throughout the school year.

The National Excellence in Teaching about Agriculture Award began in 2000, with Tonya becoming just the fourth Missouri educator to receive top accolades. She is also the first Missourian to receive national honors since 2013.” 

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Recognizing the diverse interests and needs of her students, Tonya tailors her approach to address them. That intent to shape her students and her approach to teaching is what after 17 years of teaching led her to establish a junior agricultural program for fourth and fifth graders at Highlandville Elementary in 2018. 

“I started this program in order to educate students about where their food comes from and give them experiences that will keep them engaged in agriculture,” Tonya explained.  

Including lessons on sustainable farming practices, she teaches students about agriculture with hands-on experiences and through community engagement. Claybrook said. “By instilling an understanding of the interconnectedness between agriculture and the environment, I can encourage the students to make agriculturally conscious decisions,” and, “promote a deeper understanding of the agricultural industry and its significance in society.” Claybrook emphasized that her goal is just that, to create a sense of community through agriculture.

Today Tonya lives on farm where her family, including her husband of 29 years John and their youngest child Grady, 19, raises Red Angus and Herefords, Dorper sheep, Boer goats and chickens. 

Grady is studying agriculture at the College of the Ozarks at Point Lookout, MO.  

The Claybrooks started farming 24 years ago with 5 acres they owned and 30 they leased. They only had two children at the time, Caleb who was 6 and Chesney was a 1 year old. 

A year later, they bought the 80 acres they now own and built their home and farming operations from scratch. 

Even though a full time teacher, Tonya was drawn to farming because she came to recognize how important agriculture is in providing all communities with food security. But moreover, the Claybrooks became farmers because of the strong traditions of farming as a way of life in the community where they grew up and where they have now raised a family. Being a very social person Tonya said, 

“I am drawn to the sense of community and heritage associated with agriculture. I try to support as many agricultural programs as possible,” she said. “I personally find satisfaction in growing crops, raising livestock and seeing the fruits of our labor.” 

Tonya is the secretary of the Christian County Farm Bureau, and she credited that organization and the Missouri Farm Bureau with never having stereotyped her as a female as well as with providing the “backbone of support” for her junior ag program with grants, advice, and mentorship. Tonya is also grateful for the notable support she has gotten for herself and her students from the superintendent at the Spokane R-7 School District, Dr. Della Bell-Freeman.

As far as being a woman in the industry, while there are still some who think that women can’t deal with farming as well as men.

“That could not be farther from the truth, and in fact I have received a substantial amount of support and guidance from both men and women in the industry,” Tonya said. 

“I know that not being raised on a multi-generational farm has been more of a challenge than being a woman in the field.

But relying on her heritage, she just put in the hard work on the farm and, “I just continue to speak out in support of agriculture and show that my work ethic on the farm and experience with teaching children can speak volumes,” Tonya said, noting that challenges are the things that make people grow. “I try to turn every obstacle into an opportunity.”

Her advice to young women contemplating a career in ag? 

“Make a path for yourself,” said Tonya. “Do not let others dictate the direction of your life. Man or woman.”


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