Lessons learned from new CTE teachers at Kentucky ACTE

Lessons learned from new CTE teachers (at Kentucky ACTE) during the COVID-19 pandemic

COVID-19 revealed a great need to prepare for academic disruption. While the pandemic continues to affect school operations, across the world, additional threats loom: natural disasters, large-scale technological outages, further virus outbreaks and more. The potential for future disruption is real. And given the effects of these disasters on teacher experiences, we seek to better understand how career and technical education (CTE) teachers can be supported in the most trying circumstances.

We spoke with 19 CTE teachers during the Kentucky Association for Career & Technical Education (KACTE) conference in July 2021. Participants were new teachers who completed their first of two induction years during 2020–21. They represented approximately 20% of new, occupation based CTE teachers in Kentucky. Further, participants varied in subject areas, prior work experience, and district location (urban, suburban, rural).

Regardless of background or teaching environment, new CTE teachers experienced challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

When speaking with these teachers, we noticed several patterns across their experiences. Most frequently, they spoke of the heightened challenges caused by the pandemic. For instance, teachers felt as if the specialized needs of CTE were not considered in administrative decision-making and, on occasion, these policies jeopardized their abilities to comply with standards set by the state or industry. Further complicating this situation, most teachers reported challenges communicating with school leadership. They felt unprepared or confused about expectations. Taken together, these experiences led many CTE teachers to feel like they were not fully integrated members of the community.

At the same time, teachers also reported some positive effects from the pandemic. Although relationships with administrators may have been strained, many of the teachers we spoke with reported feeling heightened connections to the other teachers at their schools. Prior to COVID-19, there was a sharp contrast between teachers who had completed traditional teacher certification — and the accompanying practice of student teaching — and those who had come from industry. But the pandemic had an equalizing effect. That is, because everyone was unsure of how to teach in the new environment, the divide grew more narrow between those who had traditional teacher preparation and those who did not.

Drawing from our conversations with these teachers, we offer five recommendations for not just new CTE teachers, but all educators working during times of academic disruption.

Recommendations for new CTE teachers

Lessons learned from new CTE teachers at Kentucky ACTE

Manage your cognitive load.

Our CTE teachers are subject matter experts, but COVID-19 presented a significant distraction. Delivery of the learning materials seemed harder and overwhelming. Notably, many new CTE teachers struggled to translate their extensive occupational knowledge into learning components that could be scaffolded with clear learning goals and outcomes.

To address this, CTE teachers should consider how they manage their cognitive load by mapping out the competencies to be achieved in the course. The process of backwards mapping can help educators visualize their learning goals and how to get there. This includes:

  • Understanding the intuition behind the activities
  • Developing a set of activities that feed into this larger outcome
  • Practicing the lessons and activities
  • Gauging how well the student absorbed and can execute the lesson, as well as how they connect the experience to other lessons

For the student to be successful at juggling the many ideas, concepts, processes, and protocols, the CTE teacher is also expected to have those learning components deciphered, outlined, and designed in a meaningful manner for the students.

Identify your multiple bosses.

The CTE teachers in this study realized that preparing students for an occupation was not the sole goal when teaching a CTE course. Students take CTE courses for a variety of reasons, including meeting occupation-specific or state determined graduation requirements. Schools may also have additional requirements, or the local industry may expect graduates to attain certain experiences or learning outcomes. CTE teachers may juggle obligations to the occupation, the local industry, the school, and state graduation requirements. Unlike many other teachers in a school building, CTE teachers have multiple bosses. Identify them, and then work to collaborate with these key stakeholders to ensure expectations and outcomes are clear.

Develop agile and value-based communication & planning styles.

Consistently, CTE teachers reported confusing information, inconsistencies in messaging, insufficient details, and lack of coordination and planning. Adding to those concerns, CTE educators still face a challenging stigma compared to “core” learning experiences. Thus, new CTE teachers should develop agile and value-based communication and planning styles.

Career and technical education teachers model constant environmental changes and operate within constraints. Just like in the workforce! Educators should expand opportunities for awareness and find ways to communicate the value they add to the school. Indeed, occupation-based education offers the advantage of more applied learning. Students may then seek to engage in project-based learning across multiple subjects. A more agile, collaborative approach to communication provides significant opportunities to CTE teachers as they reframe their role in school.

Adopt a continuous learning and improvement mindset.

Walking into a new occupation can raise questions of doubt. And there are various unknowns. Through the teacher induction process, new CTE teachers realized that success would come along with a continuous learning and improvement mindset.

That is, CTE teachers became comfortable not having all the answers. They expanded their networks within their subject matter and beyond. They participated in professional learning communities across the state to support each other. However, the CTE teachers did not always have access to the local industry partners, prior lessons, innovative ways to teach a concept, or information about students. Thus, they realized that they must continue learning to scaffold their knowledge. And, through experience, they learned the value in creating mechanisms to record information for new teachers to build off of in the future.

Engage in self-care.

When we spoke at KACTE, the teachers reported appreciating the socialization process for  reinforcing their needs and well-being. A lot of time and topical focus remained about the students (e.g., trauma informed care, social and emotional learning) and about integration into the school (e.g., occupation-based standards, industry liaisons). But the CTE teachers needed to know that their health and well-being were also important. Their development and socialization were critical to the program, so mentors would check-in with inquiries about the new CTE teachers’ state of mind. The support became less how-to and more inspirational, which proved to be a significant modeling technique for the teachers in their work with students and colleagues.


Although our recommendations are rooted in experiences during the pandemic, they maintain relevance during normal operational periods. We feel that this guidance can help all CTE educators as we prepare teachers and districts to thrive regardless of future academic disruptions.

Jeffrey C. Sun, J.D., Ph.D., is professor of higher education and law, distinguished university scholar, and director of the SKILLS Collaborative at the University of Louisville.

Heather A. Turner, Ph.D., is director of research and policy for the SKILLS Collaborative at the University of Louisville

Jodi C. Adams, Ph.D. candidate, is a lecturer of CTE and director of the New Teacher Institute.

Techniques publishes content intended to support new CTE teachers — and veteran teachers and administrators, too. Read more.