A student decides to enter a program at a career and technical center because the job looked cool on a television show. Or maybe they think it is a quick way to get a job without an advanced degree. Or maybe they think they can earn a lot of money really fast.
What does a teacher do to dispel those myths, teach students the skills for their chosen profession, and get students on the correct path? The answer is career exploration.
Karen Rivosecchi, a faculty member and department chair at the IUP Center for Career and Technical Personnel Preparation, and Elizabeth Zelina, graphic arts and printing instructor at the Beaver County Career and Technology Center, have been working on ways to help teachers understand what their students know about the profession they are studying. These efforts better align instruction and help students get to where they want to be.
“It is important for instructors to know what their students know because they need to relate the occupation to their students’ interests and abilities,” says Rivosecchi. “It gives students that spark and keeps them engaged. It gives them the relevance for how to use the skills they are learning. It also gives teachers the opportunities to dispel any myths that the students may have.”
It does not take any bells and whistles for career and technical education instructors to explore career options with their students.
Rivosecchi describes an initial writing assignment for students where they describe their ideal career, the salary they think they will earn, and the education they think they will need for their profession. “With this assignment you can see what misconceptions students have and you can help them not go through their education with false information,” says Rivosecchi. “It also provides teachers the opportunity for encouragement. They can tell students, ‘if this is where you want to go and you need to further your education, your portfolio work here will be great when you interview.’ Or ‘your work here can get you advanced placement at the community college and you can start ahead.’ It helps them see where they will end up.”
Rivosecchi also says, “This is a great writing practice in addition to the career exploration. The free writing really allows the instructor to see their students’ knowledge level.”
Zelina describes a career poster activity. The students construct a timeline poster of their next 15 years. The poster shows where they expect to be, how they will get there, where they will live, and other important information about their path. The students age a photo of themselves 15 years to go with the poster.
“It is a reality check for them,” says Zelina. “It also gives them a set of skills that they need to learn in the classroom.”
Zelina also puts students’ resumes on a board and when they are accepted or hired, their acceptance letter goes up on the board with their resume. “It motivates everyone,” she says.
What It Means for the Classroom
Zelina has seen some changes in her classroom since adding these activities to her instruction. “The students are more engaged because they notice that you are thinking of them. The students know that their teachers want them to get where they want to be.”
O Net Online–The U.S. Department of Labor’s career exploration and job analysis tool.
The Vocational Information Center–This website is an education directory that provides links to online resources for career exploration, technical education, workforce development, technical schools, and related vocational learning resources.
Pennsylvania Career Guide–The Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry, in collaboration with the Pennsylvania Department of Education, publishes an annual career guide and accompanying resource guide.
The activities were an eye opener for Zelina. She always figured her students knew certain things about the profession because they chose to be in the program, but they didn’t. This knowledge changed how Zelina introduced topics. She explains more about the careers involved with the skills she is teaching.
For example, many of her students did not understand the differences between a two-year versus a four-year postsecondary institution, the different levels of degrees, and what you can accomplish with those degrees. “It is interesting to know what students know, but teachers also need to explain what their students can do,” she says.
For Rivosecchi, she sees that it helps her teachers cater their instruction and draw in relevant resources. “If the teacher understands that her students have an interest in attending The Art Institute of Pittsburgh, then the teacher might want to bring in a speaker from the school or alumni from the center who are at the institute. This way the students can see what the path would be like.”
Rivosecchi believes the most important piece is to highlight alumni from the center’s program. “It is someone who walked in their shoes,” she explains. She emphasized having alumni that have followed various paths and inviting alumni who are working at various levels in the occupational area to speak to the class. “This shows all levels of students that you can find a place in the career path.”
Zelina adds that it allowed her to see what her students were really interested in, dispel myths, and show her students realistically how to get to their destination. Zelina also started catering to other areas her students may not be aware of, offer college visits, and other options.
For example, Zelina had a student who was interested in criminal justice. Zelina incorporated forensic and crime scene photography into her classroom to help her student. “I had the student focus on textures and other skills that I knew you would need in a criminal justice field.”
Rivosecchi said she has seen other examples in the health professions. One student-teacher had students whose goals were somewhere on the nursing career ladder. However, the students did not know what the differences were for a licensed practical nurse, a registered nurse, or a nursing assistant. The teachers would teach specific skills for the students based on their intended position so the students could see what path they were on with the skills they learned. One health program used a guide sheet so that the students could see the SAT scores they needed to have, how far in advance they need to apply to nursing programs, and the health checks that they may not realize were needed.
Zelina says the best thing about career exploration is that it gives instructors incredible insight into their students.
For Rivosecchi, it helps her teachers understand why they are teaching. “I tell my teachers that you can teach students all the skills, but if you do not make the right connection, it falls short for them.”