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Teachers Need Vocational Ed., Too

Sandy Merz

High-definition computer screens punctuate the darkness. Jumbo monitors display urgent "situations." Workers in headsets carry on intense conversations. No, it's not the NSA tackling an international crisis. It's a call-center and the workers are offering special deals on a mobile phone service.

Most are between high school and something else. They earned their jobs by completing training in which they had to demonstrate the bedrock job skill: showing up every day and on time. Their pay is low and they won't stay long. But they'll leave armed with the confidence, skills, and experience they'll need for their next pursuit.

The Tucson sun blazes down on the journeyman electricians. From behind black sunglasses, they tell their stories. They got their foot in the door by proving in interviews they could solve abstract problems, work under pressure in a physically demanding environment, work on a team, and communicate effectively with both specialists and lay people. Then they completed a long apprenticeship. They didn't have to go to college.

Now they earn a base salary over $100,000, which they often match in overtime work. If you haven't worked at the electric company for 15 years, you're still a newcomer.

Moving beyond presumption

Assuming college is for everyone closes doors.

The best pathway a school can offer empowers students to discover and develop their strengths and passions while providing useful post-secondary options. One option is college. In southern Arizona, the Joint Technical Education District (JTED) provides many more.

Through JTED, students attend their regular high school for academic courses while receiving job training in 13 career clusters at 37 satellite locations. Clusters include air transportation, graphic communications, cosmetology, public safety, and culinary arts.

Students from all socio-economic and ethnic groups as well as urban and rural settings benefit from JTED career programs. And JTED provides scholarship and college information as well—dispelling the myth that vocational programs create a two-tiered system.

The lessons I've learned

The best I can do for my students is to learn what options are available during school and what demands they'll face when they graduate. In Arizona that's made easy with Lesson2life, a unique teacher professional development opportunity offered by the Arizona K12 Center. Participants spend three days visiting work sites and talking to employees. Through Lesson2life, I have met not only call-center workers and journeymen but also engineers, epidemiologists, wildlife rescue experts, crime lab technicians, and international business people. I can always answer the question, "When am I ever going to use this?" I can also counsel students to consider JTED programs.

Throughout the country, about half of our high school students are enrolled in vocational classes. Hopefully, most teachers know about the vocational educational options their students have.

But what exposure have you had to the opportunities available to students with vocational training? Have you had opportunities to visit workplaces and meet employees to talk about what our kids will face?

If we are to help students become career-ready, we need to forge our own connections to other careers.

August (Sandy) Merz III, a National Board-certified teacher, teaches engineering and algebra and sponsors MESA at Safford K-8 International Baccalaureate Candidate School in Tucson, Ariz.

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