Oh, the Stressful Days of Student Certification...

Renda Songer

January 27, 2018

Under Texas HB 5, high school students choose an exciting career pathway when they are wrapping up their 8th grade year.   I spoke at a career day yesterday at a middle school in Dallas ISD.  The students there were delightful!  Many excited to begin their high school careers, nervous about moving into a new school, however, at least a third really have no idea which endorsement pathway is the best choice for them.   

I begin my presentation by asking each student to share their hope for the future.   “What do you want to be when you grow up?”  My estimate is that 1/3 of the students I spoke with answered with a shrug of the shoulders and said, “I don’t know”.  As a CTE teacher, each year I had students enrolled in my courses who really had no desire to be there, making this is a frustrating response.   Please don’t misunderstand, I am NOT frustrated with students.  Number one, they are children.  Number two, this failure really belongs to all of us as educators.  How have we failed?   I am not sure we can be certain there is any one cause.  

Why do students respond with uncertainty?  I think there could be a couple of reasons, many of which are heartbreaking and serve as a root cause for students who don’t finish high school or graduate unsure of the next step in their career or educational pathway to success.  

Students don’t believe they can do more, have more or be more than their closest example of success or failure: their parents.  Many students have their self-belief, self-motivation and self-respect highkacked by struggling parents who may not have had an opportunity to receive an education or experience a successful career.  Might they feel guilty for wanting to be “more” than their parents?   Somewhere along the way, have they been led to believe that by setting a goal of doing anything to avoid the struggle of their parents, they are looking down on them.

As educators, are we failing to provide necessary information and assessments at the elementary and middle school level to effectively assist students in not only selecting a career pathway, but rather helping them identify their “calling”?  I know this isn’t always the case.   Certainly, students have been scheduled in my class who had no desire to be there.  However, there were also many who absolutely wanted to be there, even if they later figured out that the career pathway wasn’t what they throughly it would be, or that their career “calling” would take them in a different direction.   I personally was very blessed to know early in my life that my calling was a career in cosmetology. It was a difficult pathway to follow in the 80’s when ALL students were led to believe that a college education was the only way to achieve success.  My parents nurtured and supported that decision to the best of their ability.  How many students today choose a trade such as cosmetology, welding or plumbing, only to be advised that they are too smart to pursue their “calling”, or even worse: not smart or good enough. 

Are we asking “too much”, when we expect an 8th grade student to know what their “calling”is?  I believe the answer is yes, sometimes and no, sometimes.  Shouldn’t high school be an opportunity to explore different options and figure out the best fit without limitations, such as “pathway completions” and rigid expectations of mandatory student certifications?   It’s a dismal idea that school districts may become so focused on accountability ratings, pathway completions and student certifications that we lose sight of preparing our students for future success.  As an Oriental proverb quite aptly states, “Choose a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life.”  Maybe, a number of 14 year old students don’t know yet what they love, and should be allowed to taste a wide array of options.   

As CTE Teachers, how can we answer the issues listed above?   We need to think outside the box, take action in the education of our community, students and parents about the options that are available to them.  

We need to promote activities that instill self-esteem, confidence and self-awareness.  Easing the burden of a student who has been raised by parents who weren’t provided with the many educational opportunities that are available today is a great way to start.  Students need to know that as an adult, they truly become responsible for their own destiny.   They do NOT own the failures of their parents.   It is not wrong, disrespectful or judgemental of a student to want to rise above their home life and choose different or better.  They can should love and respect their parents, without feeling that they need to emulate the life of those who raised them.   We need to tell them that they CAN and SHOULD, and it’s OKAY.

Early on, as in beginning with kindergarten, we need to begin paying attention to the areas where students excel and assist them in finding their niche’.  Additionally, we need to involve industry, community members and parents in this process.  Why do we often wait for middle school to begin promoting career pathways?  When a student shows an interest in an activity, such as legos and building, why can’t we fan that flame by offering specialized instruction early on that is designed to encourage exploration of a career in architecture or engineering?  You say, some schools already do this?   Yes, I am aware!  Why aren’t ALL schools doing this?  Additionally, how do we fan the flame for future Cosmetologists, Chefs, Doctors, etc.  I personally believe that the number one key to success is asking yourself how you can serve other people.  Placing a close second on the path to success, is starting early!  CTE Teachers at the secondary and post-secondary level need to reach down into primary schools.  I’d like to suggest that we use current students to educate and mentor younger students about the wide range of opportunities available to each one of them.  Both groups of students learn a great deal in this process: job specific skills, communication, self-awareness, motivation, teamwork, and much more. 

We have to allow students to change their mind, even at the risk of students who may not complete a pathway endorsement.  Locking a student into an endorsement pathway is torture for the student and the teacher.   Additionally, it becomes a problem in the classroom for the students who truly have a desire to be there and to learn.   Students who yesterday said, “I don’t know” when asked about their endorsement choice, received the following response: “I don’t know is not acceptable.  If you don’t choose a pathway, one will be chosen for you.”   What a horrible response!   Why couldn’t I say, “that’s okay! We have options for you!”  There are courses available for students who simply need more time to explore career pathways. School districts need to utilize these courses by adding them  to course selection guides and ensuring that they have hired a qualified teacher who is truly invested in assisting students in identifying their “calling”. 

Calling: a strong inner impulse toward a particular course of action especially when accompanied by conviction of divine influence;  vocation or profession in which one customarily engage.

Motivate students; motivate parents; what about support for teachers?   Teachers who shoulder the responsibility of successfully certifying “pathway completers” who really have no desire to enter the career field, it’s OKAY.  Explain to your students the importance of finishing what you’ve started.  It certainly won’t harm their opportunity for future success to earn a certification they may or may not use.  Follow this by explaining how you school district measures your success as an educator.   Most students really want you to be proud of their accomplishments!  Let them know that it’s okay to follow a different path after graduation and you’ll help them find resources to investigate the pursuit of their true calling.   They will never forget the experience of knowing that you believe in them, even when they may not share passion for your own chosen career field.  

Renda Songer is the Executive Director for FACT Education, a non-profit organization missioned to advance career and technical education through the support and professional development of secondary and post-secondary educators and students.