Under-prepared? Distracted? Overwhelmed?: The Role of CTE and Internships as Laboratories for Work and Life


I feel acknowledging my blog’s sudden turn toward Career and Technical Education (CTE) and my state’s Work-Based Learning (WBL) program is important. I have a few ideas marinating for the blog concerning my more traditional focus on project-based learning and literacy, but for the next few posts, I am going to dive even further into reflecting on the role of students participating in CTE courses, internships, potential benefits, and what must be done for those benefits to materialize for more students. My first post on the subject was a few weeks ago. I lamented the challenges I saw my 11th and 12th grade students face to really prepare for an internship and the workforce. Today’s post has some similarities, but I now put the critical lens on myself and other CTE educators.

Why? Well as the title suggests, my WBL students this year are a combination of under-prepared, distracted, and overwhelmed. The first adjective is mine. I have to own my conjecture that my students are under-prepared based on my observations from the last month. I also own it because I am one of the reasons they appear unprepared. The second adjective society must own. I know I feel distracted. My phone distracts me; my email distracts me; television distracts me. But what my frontal lobe affords me that my students’ does not is impulse control. I can typically make a conscious effort to walk away from those distractions. My students, as a product of the world they inhabit (one they’ve had little say in shaping might I remind you), are distracted, but their distractions far outweigh mine as an adult. The last adjective belongs to them. They use this word to describe themselves. The reason I get most from my students to why they do not complete a task, communicate clearly, or avoid responsibility is they mention feeling overwhelmed.

So what’s the solution? We are. Educators are. I am.

Let me first explain why I am on fire at the moment for tackling the concerns I mapped out above. This first year of leading the WBL program at my school meant I was starting with nominal knowledge of how to run the program. I got advice from the former coordinator, I went to a summer training, and asked the district’s program specialist as many questions as I could think to ask. This meant I was going to learn as I met my students, assessed their needs, and hit brick walls with them along the way. This past week we collectively hit the biggest brick wall (so far). The class is set up to have monthly assignments due on the 5th of every month. Because I do not see my students but about once a month, they are expected to complete the work asynchronously and online. Of course, students are encouraged to come talk to me or email whenever they have a question or concern, but as many of us know, you don’t know what you don’t know. While I did spend the first week of school taking students through expectations, online demos, and fielding questions, students struggled to turn the assigned work in one time, with fidelity, and with quality. I went through an array of emotions as I processed what my own failure as a teacher looked like for the first time in a very long time. I have had many ups and downs as an educator–and I have had to do plenty of soul searching to improve my practice–but this past week was the first time I felt I had flat out let my students down.

Admittedly, my first reaction was to be angry with the students for not following directions, but as the next few days progressed and I processed the multiple students who struggled to do the work required of them, I found myself upset at how we–myself and my colleagues–had failed to prepare them to take on these independent tasks. A week before students head off to their internships is not enough time to establish relationships with students and prepare them for the skills they need for the class. The conclusion I’ve come to in the last week is the relationships and skills should have been built years ago–the moment they stepped into their first CTE class.

To be clear, in our district, CTE courses all have clear standards that attend to soft skill development and employability skills. I know for a fact my colleagues and I cover these standards, but I know longer believe covering the standards are enough. Clearly, covering the standards is not help my students being any more prepared, focused, or encouraged. In order for my future students to be prepared for an internship, they need rich experiences in living out those skills and seeing the benefits to their development, much like an AP student see the benefit of taking labor-intensive academic course in order to perform well on a test and potentially earn college credit. The ‘how’ of this is tentative, but the metaphor I am hanging onto know is the concept of making CTE classes laboratories. Spaces where experimentation, reflection, and tangible results are seen and touched. While this IS happening in the very best CTE classes in my district and in my school, the vision of a laboratory does not exist with fidelity or clear intention in many–too many.  I would like to see this change at least in my school. I have a real opportunity to help shape the future of CTE classes in my school, but I need my colleagues to invest in a vision in which they all believe. Tall order, right? As this year progresses, I will update any progress I make in my endeavor to turn my school’s CTE classes into laboratories on the blog in hopes I might capture a little mixture of magic, luck, and intentional teaching.

So all that said, the fact remains my current WBL students still need help. I don’t see them face-to-face for another week but when I do, I will have experiences waiting for them and we’ll experiment with resumes, interviews, and most importantly our online model. We need to find the ‘cracks’ in the course together, and I am very open to making mid-semester changes. My hope is to establish a little more ownership in the class, build encouraging momentum, and invite students to see some of their identity in the work they are completing.

My next post will have the evidence of how that face-to-face experience unfolds, including the plan for the lesson and reflections gathered from students. I realize this post and my previous remain philosophical and idea driven, but it’s a start. Bear with me. Hopefully in another week I’ll have something tangible and digestible to share.

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