Saturday, May 16, 2015

Why I Chose to be Second-Rate

I’ve been in an unpleasant mood for a few days...

This topic tends to draw forth a bit of passion in me.  And the passion turns to anger... so I considered abandoning the issue altogether.
But… someone wise once told me that if you want to find and fulfill your passion, start with what makes you angry.  (The ability to calm that anger and turn it into productivity is the key.)
Last week, Time posted an excerpt from Sir Ken Robinson’s new book Creative Schools, titled “WhySchools Need to Bring Back Shop Class.”  I vaguely remember the mention of Sir Ken in my Master’s Degree classes, and the professor that urged us to follow him on Twitter… but I was busy teaching, unknowingly trying to accomplish exactly what Sir Ken was promoting: engaging the marginalized, stereotyped kids in our midst.

“Viewing vocational programs as second-rate is one of the most corrosive problems in education.” – Sir Ken Robinson

Don’  Vocational teachers are also often viewed as second-rate.  Much to the chagrin of my hopeful parents, I ran towards a generally low-respect career.  Why?  (Here’s a hint: surprisingly, it’s not because “those who can’t, teach.”)
Many teachers and parents show huge support for "vocational" programs, so I don't intend to demonize anyone.  Sir Ken noticed the attitude problem and drew attention to it first.  His 2006 TED Talk is the most watched in TED history: so let’s consider his opinion for a bit.  I listed a few quotes from his article below, but you should stop.rightnow.really. go to the link and read it before continuing.
While I deeply appreciate the attention someone of his influence brings to the issue, to my knowledge, he has not dove into the trenches of “vocational education,” and I want to add to and clarify a few ideas.  (My comments relate specifically to agriculture education due to my experience as a student and teacher in that content area, but I've seen this happen in other areas, as well.)
1)      “…a study from 2013 estimated that almost 6 million American between the ages of 16 and 24 are neither in school or work.” - Sir Ken Robinson

Here’s the kicker: The USDA report issued this week proclaimed the vast opportunity for college graduates in… drumroll please… AGRICULTURE.  (What? Dumb farmers? I don’t get it.)  The press release titled, “Oneof the Best Fields for New College Graduates? Agriculture.” reported that 57,900 jobs opportunities would be available to the only 35,400 students graduating with degrees in agriculture this year.  My husband and I both hold bachelor’s degree in agriculture and are prime of examples of the students Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack is speaking about when he says,
“Not only will those who study agriculture be likely to get well-paying jobs upon graduation, they will also have the satisfaction of working in a field that addresses some of the world's most pressing challenges."
Terrible photo quality, but look at those young pups. :) Long before any romantic sparks flew, the hubs and I led our senior FFA banquet, utilizing the skills we learned and preparing for the next step: our respective colleges of agriculture!

2)      Vocational Education doesn’t exist anymore.
It’s now Career and Technical Education (CTE).  We have an association and everything. ;) The Association for Career and TechnicalEducation (ACTE) includes business, agriculture, industrial arts, culinary arts, medical certifications, and the list continues.  Typically, a hang up on a name would annoy me.  However, to Sir Ken’s point, we need a transformation in the attitudes towards CTE.  Sir Ken, if you want to change perception, please join the rest of us by using the correct terminology.  CTE professionals realized this during the revision of the Perkins Act in 2006 and officially changed “Vocational” to “Career and Technical.”  We no longer prepare students for dead-end vocations.  We teach skilled career and college bound students.  Branding matters. 
3)      Please don’t refer to my protégés as “shop kids.”

It’s the same concept.  How we refer to our students matters.  Labeling a student a “shop kid” or “Ag kid” seems innocent… but the connotation it often brings is unfair for a student.  When a teacher complains to me about those “farm kids” that never settle down in his class, my heart breaks a little.  Let’s not stereotype.  Please consider that every camouflage clad student that misbehaves in class may not be part of a CTE program that emphasizes technical, leadership, and personal development skills.  If they are, maybe their misbehavior comes from the sense of disrespect they perceive from you.  Many of our enrollees are fantastic students, please show them all equal respect.

My big brother and I preparing for a show at a local fair as part of our SAEs.

4)      Agriculture Education Programs have been doing real-world learning for the last 100 years.
Sir Ken interviews a teacher explaining that the students will be working with local business leaders to figure costs and market their class projects.  This idea offers great benefit to the student, but it's not a new one.
The Smith-Hughes Act of 1917 created this type of real-world learning through vocational education, with agriculture as one of the primary leaders.  It established agriculture education programs that offered out-of-class, application-based learning projects that we still teach today.  Every student enrolled in agriculture education courses has a Supervised Agricultural Experience (SAE) where they can apply their in-class learning to a real-world context.  If you learn how to vaccinate livestock in class, you can use that knowledge in your SAE at home.  Students are required to maintain records on these projects, including receipts, expenditures, cash flows, inventories, and project goals.  My brother and I had a beef cattle herd where we learned about feed, shelter, and veterinarian costs; as well as, the impact that fluctuating markets, breeding genetics, and marketing had on our income. 
The extremely competitive and rigorous Career Development Events (CDEs) held by the State FFA Associations and the National FFA Organization, require students to learn all aspects of a professional area. 
In addition, students in our agriculture education program had the option of taking courses like Agribusiness Management, Agriculture Science, or Agriculture Communications with embedded Personal Finance, Science, and English credits.
Our entire program revolves around the idea of giving meaning and application to core curriculum: one of the few educational trends that has lasted almost 100 years. 
5)      CTE classes aren’t just for low achievers.

As a teacher, I was upset when a talented student approached me after class with her card to sign up for classes next year saddened that she, “wanted to sign up for your Agribusiness Management class.  But [another educator] told me that since I took Business Econ, I couldn’t take your class.”  Many students came to me with similar stories.  That's particularly frustrating in light of the USDA report about agriculture job openings.  Plus, any student pursuing a career that depends on technically skilled workers will be in far greater demand if they understand the practicalities of how their designs or management plans will function practically in the field.

Equally discouraging was the day an educator leading a professional development day informed us that if a student was not on track to graduate, they would start “pulling them from blow-off classes like P.E.”  Valid point, bad adjective choice.  Sitting in a room full of several non-core teachers, the grim attitudes grew thick.  No classes should be labeled as “blow-off.”  We’re all professionals.  If we find any evidence that every content area offers equal potential for success of students, it is in the teaching professionals in our schools.  Was the teacher implying that since I enrolled in high school agriculture courses, I must not have been college-bound material?  Of course that wasn't her intent, but it stung.  Luckily, I grew up in a home that taught me better, but that’s the attitude our students perceive from other adults in their school and community.  And that’s tragic.  Even Sir Ken knows it.
Meet the masters at investing in students.  Teachers' pets or knuckleheads, my ag teachers could challenge any type of student to better themselves in regards to agricultural skills.  They taught me that agriculture and professional are indeed two words that go together.

6)      We draw forth potential in low achievers.

CTE programs are sometimes viewed as “dumping grounds” for low achievers or students with behavior issues.  This didn't happen at our school as much as others, but surprisingly, it bothered me little as a teacher.  Low achieving students often find rare success in our programs.  When the academic student turns to the low achiever for welding advice, it completely transforms their relationship and respect for each other, not to mention the built-in, real-world cooperative learning that happens in those project-based learning scenarios.   I chose to be seen as second rate to advocate for students who are seen as second rate.  The agriculture industry is VITAL to our national health, and students with an interest in agriculture are just as vital.  The students who need someone to teach them how to respect themselves and expect from themselves, possess as much potential as any other.  Sir Ken was dead on with the last three paragraphs, particularly the first of the three.

“Those who feared they couldn’t achieve anything discover they can.  In the process, they build a stronger sense of purpose and self-respect.  Kids who thought they had no chance of going to college find that they do.  Those who don’t want to go to college find there are other routes in life that are just as rewarding.

So, are all non-CTE teachers and community members judgmental jerks?  Obviously, absolutely not.  I immensely appreciate teachers and counselors who encouraged my students: when core class skills are strengthened, so are CTE skills.  We need to walk hand-in-hand, instead of battling for “Most Significant Content Area.”  However, communities and funding sources often force us into that position.  Leaving behind the mission to teach students self-respect was tough when I decided to spend more time at home.  The good news: at that time, our administrators were open to investing in our courses, such as weighing courses and having conversations about the new CASE curriculum for agriculture.  Also, I’m encouraged to hear education super-stars like Sir Ken Robinson and a cabinet member like Secretary Vilsack touting the merits of CTE.  I'm hopeful that this is an upward trend that continues.
Most certainly, I had incredible core teachers that expected a great deal of me in high school.  However, I attribute my abilities to confidently utilize those skills to my time in agriculture education programs and the FFA under the influence of my high school agriculture teachers.  I hope my children have the same opportunity to benefit from CTE programs supported by their communities and role models at school.

My sweet farm baby this week at our most recent local FFA Banquet, which recognized students' leadership and skill achievements.


  1. Thanks for an excellent article, Laura. My Farmer and I have approached this topic from the Mike Rowe angle. (His experiences via his show Dirty Jobs and subsequent advocacy for trade jobs and therefore trade education. Mikeroweworks.Com) It's a worthy topic. I'm putting your article in my rotation for links to excellent ag content. Well done. (:

    Best, Emily Grace

    1. Thanks, Emily! I love Mike Rowe - so much common sense! Sounds like we have a lot in common! :)