The transition from high school to what’s next is one of the biggest decisions in a student’s life.
The choices—college, career, and technical school among them—can shape the trajectory of their future, determining what kind of jobs they can take, how much money they might make, and how satisfied they’ll be with their options down the road.
Education Week spoke with three teachers who are helping students make these decisions.
All three are 2023-24 winners of the Milken Educator Award, a recognition for early- and mid-career educators who have championed innovative teaching methods and demonstrated leadership beyond the classroom.
In conversations with Education Week, the teachers spoke about how they give students opportunities to explore their passions, plan realistically for their future, and shape the industries they might enter for the better.
These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
12th grade English and senior studies teacher, Amistad High School, Indio, Calif.
Arias teaches in an alternative education program, working with students who weren’t on track to graduate in traditional school settings.
[In senior studies], I always start off the kids telling them, “Look, if your parents are anything like mine, on day one post-graduation they’re gonna look at you and say, ‘OK, now what?’”
I tell students, my goal for this class is that you will have a plan. By the end of the class, you’ll have seen so many opportunities. The point is that I want you to be educated about what you’re picking, and what you’re saying no to. If you’re saying no to higher education, that’s great. But do you know why? Or are you just saying no because you’re afraid, or because you don’t understand it?
We do everything from resume-building for specific jobs that they could be applying for as entry-level employees to community college applications. I get them all the way up into their orientation. And then after that, it’s up to you. This year, I had a guest speaker come in, we talked about the different paths within the military that they could take. I really tried to cover all the bases.
At the end, we do this hypothetical project. If everything were great, and if everything goes the way you could make it go, what would that plan be? What would the timeline be? What certification or degree would you earn? And at the end, I make them project their satisfaction.
We have to do this weird balance in alt. ed., where we’re giving direct instruction, all of the really amazing teaching that you can do with a person in front of you. But we also offer learning opportunities for students who have valid reasons why they can’t get to school every day. This isn’t much different than what many teachers across the country learned to utilize while distance learning was in effect—strategies for supporting them virtually. But now, we’re doing it even still, because we understand that our kids can’t always access transportation to get here, or they have real life issues that hold them back from always being here.
The biggest challenges are the misconceptions that are still attached to students when they enroll here. It’s a real detriment to their self-perception. Sometimes they don’t see their potential because they’ve been labeled as failures. That is a big talk that they have to have with their counselors and their parents: “Look, at this point, you have failed too many classes, and you’re not cutting it, something’s not working here.” The connotations associated with that type of conversation are tricky, and they can be misleading.
I always like to tell others: You know people who attend alternative education schools; they are all around us. I have cousins, I have friends, you’re guaranteed to have friends and people you know who went on different paths. It’s too early to make judgments about who’s going to be a successful, productive member of society.
Agriculture teacher, Carter G. Woodson Academy, Lexington, Ky.
In Ball’s agriculture courses, 6th through12th graders explore the science behind food and fiber production, the business side of the industry, and agriculture communications.
Carter G. Woodson Academy is an all-male, college-preparatory program that teaches through the lens of African American and Hispanic history and culture. Our student population is overwhelmingly Black and Hispanic. It’s important that my students see themselves in the curriculum and in the careers that I’m teaching them about. I’ve done that a couple of different ways.
Several years ago in my communications course, my students worked to develop an African American and Hispanic agricultural Wall of Fame. When you walk into my classroom, you see that those famous individuals that have contributed to agriculture are highlighted. We have a dual-credit partnership with our land grant [historically Black college or university]. From the get-go, at the high school level, students are already establishing connections with our HBCU partners at the postsecondary level. Then students see that natural progression of, if I decide to do an agriculture internship, here’s a place for me that values and highlights my culture and gives me an opportunity to continue on that path.
The national Future Farmers of America organization recently put out a new set of value statements, as they as an organization work toward creating a more equitable and inclusive experience for all members. Because right now, student enrollment in agriculture programs nationwide, both at the secondary and postsecondary level, is not reflective of the people that we are feeding across the country.
There’s a lot of historical and systemic issues that have driven Black and brown people out of agriculture. And as a white male in Kentucky, being here at this program and doing my due diligence to try and connect to my students and learn about those problems has given me the opportunity to work with my students to say, “How do we change this? How do we make agriculture more representative of you? How do we give you the opportunity to find your niche, your entry point into agriculture?” Because there’s no more rewarding career industry, I think, in our country.
It’s less than 2 percent of our population that is directly involved with on-the-farm production agriculture. We’ve got 2 percent that are feeding the other 98 percent of people across the country. Agriculture is one of our nation’s most important industries: People have always got to have food, and we all have to eat. It’s important to make agriculture a desirable career, so that we continue to get younger people involved in this industry.
The average age of the American farmer is 57. We’ve got an aging population that is involved in food production. As our world changes, as we face new challenges—whether it be climate or land loss or rising populations—at the end of the day, we still have to provide food to Americans.
Early-childhood-education teacher, Hancock County Technical Center, Ellsworth, Maine
Stubbs teaches a two-year program to prepare students to work in early-childhood settings, in which curriculum content spans from pre-pregnancy health through elementary education. Students have the opportunity to work at the school’s on-site day care or in partner placements at other schools, including in social work, occupational therapy, or speech and language.
My class is project based. When it comes to summative assignments, they never have that paper-pencil multiple choice test. I want to see, can they do a deep dive on a theorist? In college, when it comes to those education courses, you’ll be more prepared.
We also do lesson planning here, so they’re ready to do lesson plans when they get out. The University of Maine at Farmington is one of our biggest education schools here in Maine, so I utilize the lesson plan template that they use in their college. That’s what I base mine off of for my students here. They also can take the NOCTI, the early childhood exam, so they can leave my classroom with a CECA, which is “certified early childhood assistant.” If they did want to work in a day care, they already have that certification to go out and start working with that.
I got my first message this summer from one of my students that graduated. She did a five-year college program, so she even got her master’s. She messaged me: “I got my first job.” She’s working two districts over in 5th grade, and she’s been loving it. And she was like, “If I didn’t take your class, I don’t know that I would be here.” Because she originally thought that she would teach special ed. And then I put her into a special ed. setting, and she was like, “Nope. I don’t think I’m cut out for it.” And I said, “Great, let’s find you a different placement, and let’s see what you’re interested in.”
She tried 4th grade, and she really loved 4th grade. And of course, now she’s teaching in 5th grade. But like she said, had she not taken the class, she would have gone off to college, gone for special education, not started student teaching until her junior year. And then her junior year, she would have found out, “Ooh, working with students with special needs actually isn’t for me.” Her junior year of college, she would have had to change her pathway.
I know that even here in Maine, we’ve had three early-childhood programs close down, because there’s not enough interest to keep them going. In the media right now, teachers are under fire, public education is under fire. When a 15-year-old says, “Oh, I think I want to be a teacher,” people go, “Oh, why? No one’s ever gonna respect you, and you won’t get paid any money and you’re just a glorified babysitter.” At 15, when you hear all of that negativity, that’s terrifying.
The way that we always do recruiting is that the director goes out and speaks at these high schools. I was like, “My program is starting to take a hit. I need to go out, and talk about my program.” Not that you don’t want to support my program, but it’s not the same energy. I have to get out there. I need these high schoolers to ask me those questions, like, ‘Well, why would I teach if I’m not getting paid money?’”
Parents aren’t always kind. Students aren’t necessarily always kind. But those moments, like when my student messaged me, and said, “I got my first teaching job,” those are the moments that end up being the loudest. If you’re teaching 2nd grade, maybe you had that student that struggled with reading, but then by the end of the year, they’re finally reading at grade level, that’s the moment that’s going to ring the loudest in your memory.
That’s why I said I need to get out there and be able to explain that to students—so that when they say that they want to go into education, they hear, “You are going to make a difference, you are needed. That passion that you’re feeling right now, that’s needed.”