What All High Schools Can Draw From Career and Technical Education Programs

My colleagues feverishly jotted down notes as one of my students, Ethan, moved through his presentation on how educators can more intentionally use AI in their classes. Ethan, a high school junior studying to become a secondary history teacher in our Academy for Teaching and Learning, was presenting findings from his extensive research to the staff at our school.

As part of this program at Morris County Vocational School, in New Jersey, where I teach, students engage in research about key issues at our school and learn how to plan effective professional development to support the staff. Ethan provided strategies and resources for teachers to use in their classrooms, and through this assignment, he learned a variety of skills including how to design compelling professional learning opportunities, how to find and evaluate sources and how to communicate his findings clearly to an audience.

When I tell people I work at a Career Technical Education (CTE) school, also known as a vocational school, they often assume I’m working with students who have struggled academically or behaviorally, but that’s not the case at our school. In fact, it’s a pretty dated misconception of CTE programs.

Over the past decade, CTE schools have transformed into education spaces that commit to giving students a comprehensive experience that prepares them for the workforce, helping them cultivate strong skills in their chosen career path. These programs exist in many districts across the country, some as standalone schools and others as programs embedded in the district. Some include more traditional vocations like automotive, cosmetology, plumbing and carpentry, while others have expanded to industries including education, computer science, business, biotechnology and health care.

The population of students I serve as a teacher in our Academy for Teaching and Learning are interested in pursuing a career in education. Students from the county apply to the program of their choice during eighth grade, a process that involves taking an admissions test; submitting transcripts, teacher recommendations and a personal video; and entering a lottery, since demand is high. The students in our academy are motivated, passionate and dedicated to learning more about the field they are interested in.

As a teacher in a CTE high school and an alumnus of the same program where I now teach, I’ve seen firsthand the benefits of this type of education from providing industry-specific training as well as key skills to be successful in any field, such as professionalism, maintaining accurate records and communicating effectively.

There are many types of high schools available to students, but regardless of the school model, all high schools need to be thinking about how to address the disparity between the skills that today’s employers want employees to have and the actual skills they have.

By design, CTE programs consider questions that are relevant to this gap. Do students know how to think of their feet? Can students apply the facts, definitions and key concepts they’ve learned to a project? What skills will students need in the next five, 10 and 15 years to be successful? I think about these questions each day as I prepare my students to pursue a career in education, and over the years, I’ve found that incorporating CTE skills into teaching helps students have a deeper learning experience.

To close the skills gap, there are a number of practices, strategies and ideas that any high school can draw from the CTE model. Here are a few.

Develop Learning Opportunities Around Authentic Issues, Problems and Ideas

At my school, we focus on creating authentic learning projects for students, which can be an undertaking, but have shown great benefits. An authentic project has three major components: it integrates a variety of skills, has an authentic audience (think beyond just the classroom teacher) and it relates to a real-world issue.

When I first began thinking about authentic learning projects, I was overwhelmed, but I started small. The New York Times Learning Network, which offers educational resources, runs multiple contests and challenges for students and I picked one for my students to participate in. The one I started with was a multimedia challenge asking students to share what high school is like for them. We spent time brainstorming a list of feelings students had about high school, the hardships, the exciting moments, and everything in between. Students started to have rich discussions about what the purpose of school should be and tapped into their creativity to find unique ways to represent their ideas through writing, images, audio or video. The project was simple for me because it came with the guidance like a rubric, a model and examples to help with lesson planning. My students enjoyed it so much that since then, we have participated in several including a one-pager challenge where students respond to a New York Times story, a contest where students submit an original podcast and a contest where students can share opinion essays on issues they care deeply about.

As I became more comfortable, I began designing my own projects. For example, my students read a variety of books about education to learn more about challenges and solutions in the field. Instead of hosting a class discussion, my students host roundtable discussions about their books, designing their own discussion questions and takeaways to share. The goal is for each student to facilitate a rich conversation based on the main themes of their book, while gaining experience leading an engaging conversation. For this project, students invite teachers, school leaders and families to engage in the conversation.

Recently, I worked on a more complex project in which my students hosted two family learning nights for a local elementary school. They created stations for students, taught parents key math and reading skills so they could better support their child at home, and gained experience running a schoolwide event, learning valuable skills from start to finish. Parents and school administrators were amazed at how well teenagers put together a community event.

Invite Guest Speakers to Provide More Perspective

Guest speakers contribute to deeper learning and help students make connections to the world outside of the classroom. In our CTE program, guest speakers can also expose students more directly to the industry they’re pursuing.

Earlier this year, I was facilitating a series of three lessons about classroom management. Students learned to identify different behaviors , practiced creating a behavior management system and had an opportunity to give and receive feedback on implementing a behavior plan. I invited a local certified behaviorist to join our class to offer insight along the way.

My students observed children in our on-site preschool to identify various behaviors. The behaviorist visited our class and helped students understand the different reasons why young children exhibit various behaviors, led their efforts to comb through data from their observations and offered support as they designed individualized behavior plans for particular students. She was able to provide industry-specific language, discuss best practices and help my students implement real plans to support the preschoolers in our building.

Weaving Subjects Together to Create More Meaning for Students

Interdisciplinary connections allow students to explore topics through a variety of lenses. When students can understand how one topic might be covered in English, History and Science, they’re able to grasp it more deeply. CTE programs are uniquely positioned to build interdisciplinary connections because of the focus on real-world application. Students engage with projects that focus on transferable skills and allow for integration of core academic subject knowledge.

During a recent unit on creating a meaningful curriculum, I brought my students to visit a local museum to meet with the museum curriculum director and curator of collections to learn how they create programming for children. They evaluated the museum’s education program and worked together to design a new curriculum. Through the process, they learned about key historical events and analyzed them through an art and English lens.

Then, they paired their knowledge of how students learn best and their experience as young people visiting the museum to provide feedback to the museum’s educators on the current programming offered by the museum. The unique combination of history, art and English education offered them a glimpse into how subjects can be woven together cohesively, and they were also exposed to new career pathways in the field of education.

Teaching at a CTE high school has allowed me to think outside the box and challenge myself to bring authentic, engaging experiences to my students and has helped me keep my love of teaching alive. More importantly, it has allowed me to provide a strong foundation of skills for my students to be successful in entering the workforce, which is critical, especially in a future that is unknown.

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