Lighting the Path: Career and Technical Education (CTE) Guides Numerous Young People Into Successful Careers
February 16, 2022
February 16, 2022
By Jessica M. Jones
A quick look at the world we live in reveals high demand and low supply of workers specializing in home health care, physical therapy, nursing, construction, truck driving, web development, and more. What those fields have in common is that they’re born from career and technical education (CTE). Right now, more than ever, we’re in need of people who have developed both their academic and technical skills, with the knowledge and training required to succeed in today’s labor market.
I took classes from elementary through high school in history and social studies, language, mathematics, science, and a variety of electives. My teachers were encouraging, motivating, and clear about their expectations, regardless of the discipline, and each took an interest in me as a person and truly desired to see me grow into a productive citizen. In particular, four of my teachers let me know they thought I should become an Agriculture teacher. I had the background to do it – I grew up on a farm, understand mechanics, and have experience in the science and business of agriculture. My education was focused on providing me the best schooling possible for a future that seemed aimed at a college degree and then some type of career, maybe teaching. I did, in fact, follow that roadmap and graduated from Virginia Tech with a B.S. degree in Agricultural Education. Yes, I was going to be an Ag teacher, but my students and I would not realize the impact of that decision until a little later in the story.
Early in my career, I remember fellow teachers, guidance counselors, administrators, or parents telling their students/children, “You should take CTE classes. They’ll be good for you.” But CTE programs are not designed to be easy to pass or as holding tanks for warm bodies; career and technical education is designed to develop students to be ready to pursue their future in college, career, and life.
CTE content areas include Business and Information Technology, Career Connections, Family and Consumer Sciences, Health and Medical Sciences, Marketing, Military Science, Technology Education, Trade and Industrial Education, and my content area, Agricultural Education. As I am a product of career and technical education classes, I understand their great value and importance. Still in CTE, we must fight the idea held by many that we’re a dumping ground for students. In truth, we’re a collective body of diverse disciplines that are the best way for many students, regardless of their background, creed, color, ethnicity, gender, zip code or anything else, to successfully transition into both the working world and adulthood.
The Commonwealth of Virginia acknowledges CTE’s importance to the more than 640,000 students enrolled in CTE courses in grades 6-12 through diploma seals awarded by the Board of Education, by recognizing industry credentialing in its diploma requirements, and through the use of Career Pathways as an integral part of the Commonwealth’s Academic and Career Plan. Further, not only do students grow through classroom instruction and a variety of experiential learning opportunities, they also can expand their knowledge and skills through membership and involvement in their respective Career and Technical Student Organization (CTSO).
Career and Technical Student Organizations consist of 11 nonprofit organizations authorized by Congress. CTSOs include Distributive Education Clubs of America (DECA), Future Business Leaders of America (FBLA), Family, Career and Community Leaders of America (FCCLA), National FFA Organization (FFA), Future Health Professionals (HOSA), SkillsUSA, and Technology Student Association (TSA). Through the FFA, the CTSO integrally connected with Agricultural Education, students engage in leadership and career development events and personal growth training.
My students, over the years, have taken advantage of these opportunities and, because of their earnest involvement, they have been commended by our school board, board of supervisors, the Virginia General Assembly, and even Congress. To know the future of society is being shaped by my students with their experiences and knowledge is a major driver for why I became an agricultural educator. It’s why I’m especially proud that some of my former students, such as T.J., Cutler, and Clint, are now agricultural educators. Those who are not teachers, like Mary, Nick, and Seth, have successful careers throughout the agricultural industry and other CTE sectors. They see, believe, and have a quest to excel in changing the world for the better through their daily lives.
As an example, I’m thinking about a student I spent hundreds of hours with in class who was also a member and officer in our high school FFA chapter. More than just shy, she often doubted her ability to think well, felt awkward, and didn’t believe what she contributed was of value. However, she found that the more she engaged, the more she enjoyed working with her peers. She learned how to take the lead when needed, but also to remain balanced in a cooperative setting where she made positive contributions to a group while encouraging others to add their thoughts, ideas, and experiences to the process. She did this numerous times as an FFA member when working in officer and chapter meetings and in career and leadership development events, including building and executing our National Chapter Building Communities national chapter finalists presentation delivered at the annual National FFA Convention. In addition, she shined as an individual, competing at the National FFA Convention for Senior Prepared Public Speaking in 2018 and for Employment Skills in 2019, ranking fifth overall in the nation! In 2020, she earned her Virginia FFA State Degree and in 2021, she received her American FFA Degree. The highest degree achievable in the National FFA Organization, the American FFA Degree, shows a member’s dedication to his or her chapter and state FFA association, the effort he or she applied toward their supervised agricultural experience, and outstanding leadership abilities and community involvement. American FFA Degree recipients show promise for the future and have gone above and beyond to achieve excellence.
This young lady worked diligently on her Supervised Agricultural Experience project – beef cattle management with an emphasis in small grains and plant research, in which she placed first in the Virginia FFA Association proficiency award program and earned a bronze national ranking at the 2021 National FFA Convention. I remain in contact with her, and we discuss her studies and life challenges. She’s involved in the Agronomy Club at Virginia Tech and completed a course focused on the agricultural commodities of the Palouse region in Washington State. That class is planning to visit the Palouse region this May to speak to various producers and industry professionals to provide more insight into the area’s agricultural production. Further, she’s has been active in the Virginia Tech Residential College for Leadership and Social Change. This year, she plans on doing a presentation based on students in agriculture and the industry itself to provide a platform for students to learn more about careers in agriculture.
Students like Megan, T.J., Cutler, Mary, and numerous others have seen CTE transform their lives, helping them find out who they are and become who they didn’t realize they could be. Over the years, my students have been recognized as winners or finalists for several national awards from the National FFA Organization and were once presented with their awards and interviewed for a nationally broadcast show on the RFD-TV network. This award ceremony was a life-changing moment for them. The academic and leadership skills that they learned will lead them to value community responsibility and career success for a lifetime.
In my career, I’ve witnessed many students and educators come through the doors of the CTE programs where I have worked. Unfortunately, a few months ago and within 48 hours of each other, I lost two dear friends and by the end of the following month, a third. Each of these individuals, with whom I was brought together by CTE, were unique in their own way.
One owned and operated an auto service. He had a gift for mechanics, people, and sports, was a former FFA member and truly enjoyed talking about his experiences in and out of the organization’s blue and gold jacket. More so, as our school’s lead bus driver, he loved taking us on our competition trips to Blacksburg and other places, often joining in on the preparation and giving the students an extra “Go get ‘em, Trojans!” Students would be so proud to come back to the bus and tell Mr. Billy Stowe how things went. He’d cheerfully sit in the stands during awards ceremonies to show his support of their accomplishments. On the way back to the school, he would encourage them by saying, “See, hard work does pay off when you stay focused on the job.” Mr. Stowe shared his experiences and wisdom while displaying a deep devotion to all by helping them better understand the power of a strong work ethic and positive thinking.
The second also was a business owner, operating a garage door service. He, like Mr. Stowe, had a gift for people, detail, and process. Mr. David Bandy was a VEA member who stayed apprised of issues in education, particularly what was going on with his students. As a technology education teacher, he made it a point to develop a genuine relationship with each of his students and tell them, “You’ve got to prepare yourself for tomorrow because today is too late.” He would support student initiatives and encourage every student he met to be better tomorrow than they were today. By visiting “Bandyland,” students learned to follow the process as outlined, but to be able to troubleshoot and problem-solve because the world doesn’t hand you answers—it does, however, expect you to be real with others and especially yourself.
The third, too, a business owner, served as a disc jockey in addition to being a full-time agricultural education teacher. Mr. James “Jimmy” Craddock was a staple in the community, serving in numerous leadership capacities throughout his career, and would unapologetically tell the unvarnished truth. For decades, he nurtured students through his program, taking them to state and national conventions, in addition to preparing them for community service events and whatever was needed. Mr. Craddock’s gifts included understanding people, place, and times, and he’d work from sun-up until sundown, tending to the needs of his students and the community. He’d always take the time to ask you how you were and get reconnected, even if he had just talked to you five minutes earlier. He prided himself on knowing every one of his students and their families and giving his students whatever chance he could to help them succeed.
In short, career and technical education is important because people are important. The lives we lead do not stop at the ring of the day’s bell, but the bell serves a signal to take what we have learned throughout the day and put it into practice with a strong work ethic, being real with others and ourselves, and giving everyone a chance to succeed for a lifetime as we seek to be excellent at who we are.
Jones, EdD and PhD, is the president of the Pittsylvania Education Association, an agriculture education teacher and FFA sponsor at Tunstall High School. She’s also a past president of both the Virginia Association of Agricultural Educators and the Virginia Association for Career and Technical Education.