Extension Agent or Extension Educator?

As we celebrate 100 years of outstanding service to our communities, is it time to consider a name change for those people in our system who have the most direct contact with our clients, the Agents?

I argue that we should use a name that is more descriptive of what agents do–educate. Despite 100 years of existence, or maybe because it has been 100 years and our society has drastically changed over that time, the majority of people in our society don’t know what Extension is, or what an Extension Agent does.

So perhaps if we changed the title of those on the front lines, we would begin to create an image in society of what an agent does (educate) and what Extension is about (education).

What do you think?  Extension Educators for the next 100 years?

Joe Hunnings

41 thoughts on “Extension Agent or Extension Educator?

  1. Andy Ovwrbay

    While agents do educate, we are also change agents. We do not educate to help others obtain degrees (albeit certificates sometimes apply), our main focus is to bring about change…positive change.

    I agree that a growing number of the public are unsure as to who and what we are, but I also know that this is not a problem of nomenclature. It is a problem of visibility.

    My personal opinion is that a name change alienates more of our current clients than it would ever gain us in return.

    My greatest compliment is when a client introduces me as THEIR county agent. By making that statement, they show they have personal ownership and they know me by a most important title….friend.

    1. Kelly Liddington

      Amen Brother! I have spent 27 years being a County Agent,have been to most every function of a families life with one or another of my clientele. No, I haven’t delivered any babies yet, at least not humans. But it’s the generational change and involvement that bears our impact. One of my teens (3rd generation I have worked with) chided last year when I stayed home from camp; “Kelly you have to go to camp you’ve been going my whole life!”

      Andy cites visibility as being a problem, and I agree to an extent. But I contend it is also continuity, we’ve got to increase our retention rates on new hires if we are to prosper. We’re not hiring someone to deliver the bread, we need to hire someone to help us make the bread($).

      You can educate a person to plant a seed in a short time, tending the land takes generations and that kind of trust is earned. As we see others try to imitate us by doing what we do, it is what we are and what we are called by those we serve that makes the difference.

      “If it walks like a duck, it quacks like a duck and it looks like a duck, it must be a duck.” Relatively speaking, be what you want to be called and you shall be, just don’t call me Kimble!

    2. Joe Hunnings

      I agree that we are change agents. And I think we primarily bring about that change through education.
      Good point about our lack of awareness in the public’s eye being more about visibility and not about nomenclature.
      But it seems like alienation is an awful strong reaction to just a different name. As you noted, its that personal connection that is most important, not the title.

  2. Emily Reiersgaard

    Many other states use the title “Educator.” I think it’s smart to do the same, especially for those of us in urban areas where people are far less familiar with Extension and its history. Folks here associate “Agent” with ticket agents, gate agents, real estate agents – people who have something to sell. Educator is comprehensive of the notion of change that Andy mentioned (there is no change without education), and is also comprehensible to average person who many not be familiar with Extension. I think it’s a stretch to say that we’ll alienate anyone by changing the title, but I am certain that in many places we’ll have a friendlier reception.

  3. Karen Vines

    I’ve been in states where I have been called both and I think what is really critical is being recognized by the public and identifying the total role. I agree with Andy, that Extension Agents/Educators are “change agents” but education is the primary tool we use to help people and communities enact change, by resolving issues and planning for a positive future. Maybe the title should be education agent?

    1. Joe Hunnings

      I like the way you describe the change that we bring about…”education is the primary tool we use to help people and communities enact change.”

  4. Rebecca Davis

    Unfortunately, the majority of people in Virginia don’t understand and know the history of Extension and the meaning of the word “Extension Agent.” This term is confusing to most folks as they have no idea what a “change agent” is. Education has and is our mission; it shouldn’t make a difference that the education we do is non-formal; our jobs are to help people live better lives, and the word educator better describes that.
    The title “educator” brings us into the current century. People will know immediately who and what we are, even if they don’t know about Extension. My vote is to change our title to educator.

    1. Joe Hunnings

      Thanks Rebecca, my thoughts exactly. Of course my blog post was to get the conversation going, to get people thinking about what we do and how people perceive what we do. Subtle things like a name can make a difference.

  5. Janet Crews

    Extension Agents are on the forefront of change. Therefore they should remain agents. In this day and time some constants are good.

    I have seen from the confusion with name changes in the past. It takes quite a while even years for the change to be accepted,
    Being an educator is only a part of what Extension Agents are. They are advisors, problem solvers, leaders, mentors, progressive thinkers.

    Change is good and Extension AGENTS are on the leading edge of change. The more things change the more things stay the same.

    “Somebody told me to call the county AGENT and they could help me.” You’ve called the right place!!!

    1. Joe Hunnings

      Janet, you are right, agents are on the forefront of change! My point is that the word agent doesn’t imply change to those that don’t know us. And the number of those that don’t know us is growing every year. If you are unknown, you are probably not going to be around very long. We need more people to know that we change things, we solve problems, advise and mentor, based on our connections with research-based education.

  6. Laura Siegle

    Hi Joe!
    Thank you for providing an opportunity for agent feedback on this topic. I don’t mean to be a contrarian, but I do think I have to agree with Andy on this one, as I feel very strongly about keeping the “agent” title. My first argument for keeping the name “agent” would be that it keeps with tradition, and tradition is very important to our clients who have been relying on Extension for years. They have been adjusting to things like new programs, our new graphic image, and in some counties, new agents through the years, so changing our title would be yet another adjustment. For some, it would disconnect us from the identity and association with the other “county agents” that these clients have built relationships with in past years. When speaking of us, most producers I meet always refer to us as “agents,” and I think that even if we were to become “educators,” they’d stick with calling us agents for quite some time.
    On another note, as much as education is part of our job, I think that the term “agent” imparts a more direct, targeted sense of technical expertise, encompasses a broader set of ideas about out job, and more clearly conveys the message that we are out in the field working on the industry level, which differs from the work of other types of educators . For some reason, the term “educator” imparts a more ambiguous feeling about what we do and it does not impart the sense of being “in the field” that “agent” carries. I cannot speak for all the program areas, but for ANR, I think also “agent” aligns more with the identities of other industry professionals who perform similar work and thus lends us greater credibility.
    Although we are always looking to the future in Extension, we have also been emphasizing our past and celebrating our 100 years of success. I’d strongly recommend keeping with tradition on this matter, as I believe the title still fits the work. That way, Extension remains the same age-old, reputable identity that people have grown familiar with, but our clients can still change with us as we adjust our actual programming to fit the needs of the future.

    1. Joe Hunnings

      No contrarians here. Just good debate taking place!
      I really don’t think our clients give a hoot about our graphic image changes, new logos, color schemes, etc. I think they expect our programs and even agents to change over time. We wouldn’t still be here if we hadn’t changed to meet new issues and needs. The tradition that they want to keep is the educational services that we bring to help them solve their problems.

      They may still call us “agents” and that is fine. A name change is more about the clients that don’t know us and don’t know what we offer. It is more about informing them about what we are about. As our population grows and becomes more separated from our agricultural roots, it is those non-extension audiences will determine our future.
      I disagree with you about what the word “agent” infers to people that don’t know us. Try asking someone that doesn’t know what Extension is what the word “agent” means to them. Then ask them what the word educator means to them.
      Sure, those that know us, know that agent means educator, change, mentor, leader, etc. But changing our title to educator doesn’t diminish those roles in their minds. But I argue that it will create a more positive image in the minds of those that don’t know us, than what “agent” does.

    2. Kathleen Watson

      Laura, I agree with you! I also think, to add on to what you said about the educator term, using the word educator implies that “We think you need to be educated”–I think we have to be really careful about what we imply. Many folks willingly admit they need to learn about things, but to some people, educator is going to be off-putting.

  7. Jennifer Ligon

    I agree with Andy, Laura, Adam, etc. who are against the change to Extension Educator. I do not agree with the change and believe Agent is what those who do know us, know and that it is our job to let people know what we do. The change to “Educator” will do absolutely nothing for anyone in my county, but confuse them.

    1. Joe Hunnings

      I don’t believe the word “agent” helps any non-extension user know what we do. And I suspect users will be less confused than you suspect – don’t you think they recognize you as an educator?

  8. Jennifer Bowen

    This is a great forum for discussion and ideas! I believe that we should keep the title of Extension Agent. The term “educator” does describe what we do, or at least a big part of what we do. However, I think that many of our adult clients, particularly farmers, will see this title as condescending. It implies that I know more than you and I am here to let you know that. The term “agent” implies that we are agents or representatives of the University here to provide you with resources. If the problem is a lack of knowledge about Extension, then it is a PR campaign that we need, not a name change.

    If I remember correctly, the possibility of a change in title first came up during talks about restructuring (sorry…I know we are not supposed to say the “r” word anymore). For some of us, it may represent a creeping back in that direction especially with additional budget cuts looming. It invokes that “here we go again” feeling. I know that is not the intention, but perhaps the timing of the consideration is a bit off.

    1. Joe Hunnings

      Let me make this clear….There is no consideration of a name change. Mike Lambur asked me for a Conversation Blog topic that would generate some discussion, and I volunteered this one. No one in administration has proposed this.
      But as you said, the blog is a great place for discussion and sharing ideas. And boy has it!

      I am in favor of a name change, but at the same time I proudly tell people I was a county agent. For most non-Extension users, I get that curious look, and have to explain what that means. But I don’t think in the short-term a name change is solve our visibility and lack of awareness problems.
      But as change agents, we should not be afraid of change. And this blog is a good place to talk about changes that can make us a relevant entity for more and more Virginians.

      1. Lindy Tucker

        Hello Joe, I understand what you are saying here, but I feel that while, with some crowds (especially the younger ones or those in more urban areas) may require you to explain what an extension agent is, you would have to explain what an extension educator is to 100% of people.

  9. Karen Poff

    Based on the comments thus far, many of the opinions seem to be based on audience. Those who work most closely with our “traditional” clientele seem to prefer the term “Agent” and those who are concerned about broadening our reach and support base seem to prefer the term “Educator.” The changing demographics indicate that we will not be able to survive and thrive long term without involving more non-traditional audiences, particularly in the urban areas. Whether we like it or not, sixty (60) of Virginia’s rural counties stayed the same or lost population between 2010 and 2013. You can look up this information at the Economic Research Service link here: http://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/county-level-data-sets/population.aspx#.VBBYSGO9-mR.

    What does this mean for Virginia Cooperative Extension? Our traditional support base of primarily agricultural/rural audiences is decreasing. While we must continue to meet the needs of our traditional clientele, we must also recognize that our political support is dependent upon equally strong programming in the urban areas.

    Thus, although I appreciate the history and tradition that the term “Agent” conveys, I believe that we would be better served to use a term that new audiences can easily recognize and understand. Since Extension’s mission is education, the term “Extension Educator” is the better choice for the next 100 years.

  10. David Smith

    Leave well enough alone. Extension Agent has brand recognition.
    Educator infers a hands-off approach. Is that really where we want to go?
    I’ve been around long enough to know that sometimes things get stirred that don’t need stirring. Why not propose changing the 4-H symbol also? We can have a name change and spend resources extolling our new name but we are still going to be Extension Agents to everyone else.

    1. Joe Hunnings

      Agent has brand recognition with a small slice of our potential users. And I agree David, that educator is not perfect either, but I contend it is more descriptive for non-Extension users about some (most?) of what we do.

  11. Joe Hunnings

    Boy I wish I could come up with a title that the general public (particularly those that don’t know us) would recognize as a person that educates, facilitates community networking, builds capacity, develops relationships, etc. Then we would have the right title. To those that know us, county “agent” implies all of those things.
    But moving into the next century, I am more concerned about those that don’t know us. Maybe we can put the right image of some of what we do if our title was educator.

  12. Cyntha Gregg

    I am certain I will get verbal smacked for this or more.

    I must concur with several posts on this blog forum. Extension Agent vs Extension Educator, Extension Agent is more a description of what we do, we are agents who share knowledge, life shills, leadership building, and so much more, that changes lives in positive ways. We also share experiences in a number of ways: field days, group discussion, workshops, lectures, blogs, Facebook, etc. Educator can conjure up an image of someone standing in front of a room lecturing, no hands on to me. We are agents of change, some folks say we are the same old same old, I beg to differ, we listen to our clientele, producers of food, fiber and shelter, youth, senior citizens, home owners, businesses, localities, counties, businesses, and more. As we listen we form plans on how we can help them with their issues, network them with fellow agents and specialists who can assists them if we cannot, and we are willing to share our programs with co-workers to assist people in their communities. If we change Agents to Educators should we not change Specialists to Educators as well? I have found it amazing that even people in the Land Grant Systems do not know who we are until they need the folks in the communities. We have to do many things that the faculty does sometimes in different ways but sometimes we are treated like we do not belong. Well, we do belong and we are agents of change and education and try our very best to do all we can for our communities in disaster times and good times. Helping youth set goals, seniors stay at home a little longer, build leaders, build bridges, help produce more food and fiber and so much more. Educators train, teachers teach, and agents change lives. I am an Extension Agent, who educates and so much more. I think the comment about making folks in rural areas feel like “I know more than you” can be very true. I admit I learn as much from my clientele as they have learned from me. We have folks move into to rural areas and I have had them tell me I am glad you are here to help me, I never about Extension until now. Yes, in many cases it has nothing to do with the Extension Program not being good in other communities. It is just there are unfortunately only so many hours in a day and we can only do so much and volunteers can choose when and where to help us. Would a name change help that condition? I cannot answer that, I wish I truly could.

  13. Scott Baker

    Educator is too narrow in my view. If we are looking to position ourselves for future viability, I believe we should consider this – if all we have to hang our hat on is education, we are off target. Increasingly citizens can access education through multiple and expanding formats. And let’s face it – there are lots of competitors out there providing education in all our disciplines, more than ever before. In fact, I submit that our role as an ‘educator’ in the traditional sense may indeed become less valuable to our communities in the future. Not irrelevant by any means but perhaps not the end all, be all. I believe our real strength (and future) lies in our effectiveness in being that individual in a community; that person that is known, trusted and knows how to bring people around a table to discuss issues of importance to a community, regardless of issue, locality, urban/rural, etc. It’s about facilitation, relationship building, collaboration and leadership development at the local level. All this and our ability to bring our land grant’s resources to the people. This has relevance if I live in a small agrarian based county or a fast growing urban area. The fact of the matter is non-Extension users won’t know us any better if we change our title. I don’t believe people care about that (in my opinion it’s harder to get folks to understand what VA Cooperative Extension is than explaining my title. Far more blank stares due to our agency title than our individual title). It’s about getting results and empowering our communities. Let’s focus on building our staff’s capacity to be that change agent. If we do that and do it well, we will be viable for the next 100 years regardless of our title.

  14. Kevin Spurlin

    This is the only blog posting that I have contributed to but was compelled by very good reasons for both Extension Agent, and Extension Educator. I must admit that I toyed with the idea of “Extension Educator” early in my career to help remind me of the majority of my focus. I agree it is too narrow. I also agree that Educator may be more palatable to those who do not have a history with VCE. Extension Educator just didn’t wear well, and I proudly remain an Agent until further notice. But, for the sake of discussion, and since I haven’t seen anyone offer an alternative, I will. Joe even wished he could find a title that is more encompassing. Here it is – Extension FACULTY. Please read on for my explanation.

    To my friends who like “Educator” as a way to connect to the non-traditional audiences, “Faculty” may carry more weight than “Agent”, and yet be more encompassing of the fullness of who we are relative to “educator”. Also, to the traditionalist friends, I agree we are initiators of change. Chip and Dan Heath in their book Switch, How to Change Things When Change is Hard, theorize that change only occurs when both logic and emotions result in different actions or behaviors. If we only educate, we only appeal to logic and our true impact is limited. For example, I have been educated that Krispie Crème donuts are not the most healthy eating choice, but my emotions rule my logic and the Hot and Fresh sign pulls me in as I drive by. 100 year ago, we were Demonstration Agents who compelled both logic (through education) and emotions (motivation by seeing change actually working). It is for these reasons Extension Educator woefully underrepresents our role, and why I don’t prefer it. We research, demonstrate, teach, and MODEL different ways of doing things. If Agent doesn’t capture it, maybe “faculty” does.

    The next big reason I like Extension “Faculty”, is as a reminder to our system that IS who we are. We are PROFESSIONAL grade people. We work hard for our clients to view us that way, and we should hold each other to that same level of high professional standards. We should help each other achieve that title.

    All the best to my fellow “field professors” who take the time to throw a lamb, give a shot, harvest a field plot, walk the campground, check the canner lid, diagnose the garden tomatoes, pull soil samples, engage in community development, develop youth and families, and then sit down to pie with those we serve.

  15. Hermon

    Extension Faculty sounds better to me than Educator or Agent. We are field faculty for the land grant universities. Using the word faculty in our title clearly expresses the level of education we deliver and points out the fact that we represent a university. The title Extension Faculty is a good conversation piece. People will probably ask questions like “What university do you work for…” as soon as you tell them you are Extension Faculty.

  16. Hermon Maclin

    On second thought, Extension Faculty isn’t really a title. I was just looking at our HR website and thinking that maybe Extension Professor or Associate Professor would be more in line with approved university position titles. However, that sounds rather grand for informal education in the field. It’s a tough one. Extension Educator just sounds a bit too general for me. When I think of education, I think of teachers and professors.

  17. Hermon

    One more thought and I promise this is the last 🙂
    I am a Lead Educator for Adobe Youth Voices (AYV). They use the titles, Educator for positions similar to our Agent positions and and Lead Educator for positions similar to our Specialist positions. So yes, after all that, I’ll have to agree that Extension Educator is probably our best fit for a title.

  18. Joe Hunnings

    Kevin, thanks for stretching our ideas a bit more. Looks like we have to move the logic and emotion a bit more before seeing any change on this topic!

  19. John Thompson

    This has been an excellent thread to read. I hope I caught all the nuances and don’t restate anything already said. I am 100% an Extension Agent, and hope that the organization will allow me to retain that title. One thought not discussed so far, for remaining an “Agent of the University” as opposed to Educator, is duplication of effort. If we take that title, we will look like MANY other organizations vying for attention, and for state and federal funding. By remaining Extension Agents, we then stand out in the crowd, retain the history some already understand, AND provide ourselves with an opportunity to answer “What is an Extension Agent” for those who don’t know. I have my elevator speech ready for that one.

    I STRONGLY believe that sometimes we change simply to change. That is effective occasionally because it brings attention. 1980’s new Coke will never be forgotten. But if we change to Educator, for whatever reason, it won’t create BUZZ that allows self promotion. I believe it would do the opposite and we would lose what makes us unique, and we would disappear amongst the teachers and professors. We should strive to be unique and outstanding.

    Now, I need to go be “outstanding in the field”! I choose to be an Extension Agent.

    1. Missy Fike

      I am the Unit Administrative Assistant in our office. I field the calls daily and Over and Over people call and ask to speak to the “Agent”. The come into the office and they want to speak to the “Agent”. I like how John used the term Agent of the University. Extension is an extension of the University and the Agents are in fact Agents of the University. I would really hate to see the title changed to Extension Educators.

  20. Joe Hunnings

    Thanks for the comment Missy. There are no plans to change the name of Agents. It was merely a discussion topic. But there were certainly some strong feelings about the tradition and heritage of the title! Let’s hope that one day, everyone knows what is meant when you hear, “Go talk to the county agent!

  21. Rachel Grosse

    Thank you all for the great ideas and comments. I too have really enjoyed reading this blog post no matter how late it is. The comments by Jennifer Bowen, Cynthia, Scott, John, Kevin and more are all great points. I can definitely see both sides but I do prefer Agent. Thanks for the conversation starter Joe and happy holidays to everyone!


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