College Degree … or Work Skills?

A decade ago, President Obama declared a nations, goal of having the highest percentage of college graduates in the world. This month, EdSec Betsy DeVos called for a renewed focus on career education and workforce training.

Now before we condemn DeVos for somehow being anti-education, we need to consider that she may indeed be correct. A liberal arts education may have value for the soul, but it can be just as important to some to pursue an education that guarantees one can support a family and pay the mortgage.

We explore the topic on the latest edition of #TrumpED on the BAM! Radio Network. Give it a listen.

What I Learned While Lecturing At College

There is something rejuvenating about speaking on college campuses, particularly when it offers the opportunity to reflect on your profession and your career choices. In our day-to-day world, we can often lose sight of why we do what we do, letting the frustrations of the day get in the way of the successes of the career.

Last week, I had the opportunity to speak with students at Southwest Baptist University in Missouri about strategic communications. Heading in, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’ve spoken at public and private universities. I’ve presented at Ivy League institutions and community colleges. At HBCUs and foreign universities. Each one is different, each comes with its own set of questions and its own frames of discussion.

Over the years, I’ve learned I’m an effective storyteller. Anyone in the communications profession can go onto a college campus and describe what their job is like. Speakers can approach such scenarios as if they are going in for a first round job interview or talking to someone at a cocktail party that they will never see again. They can provide a “just the facts” approach, as if they are describing the work to a crime scene investigator. Me, I prefer to tell old war stories.

It’s easy to get someone’s attention when you are able to talk about defending bomb-detecting dolphins trained by the U.S. Navy or flacking for a company that allegedly employed paramilitary death squads or managing an “angel of death” scenario at a local hospital or doing rhetorical battle with a brand name like Bill O’Reilly. Such tales make a communications job seem glamorous, taking away from those countless days and years in a cubicle cold-calling reporters and begging them to attend an event or review a release or the reams of paper and the countless drafts before a commentary meets the approval of the cast of thousands who may need to OK it.

Such stories, though, can often be the easy way out. It is one-way communication, with the storyteller (me) simply informing my audience. Even when one opens it up for questions, those answers are often simply more stories, or the expansion of the existing ones.

But in my discussion at Southwest Baptist University, I found a different discussion. Yes, the tales were entertaining (at least I thought so, but I’ve heard them all before). But the questions asked of me were illuminating. I was forced to go into my personal recesses and find answers to questions I haven’t asked myself in a long time. And in a few instances, explore some topics I have never consciously explored as a communications professional.

These were questions like:

  • What are the similarities in working in communications in fields like politics, government, healthcare, education? What are the differences?
  • Compare working in the private sector with working in the public sector? Working for for-profits versus not-for-profits? Which is better for a young professional? Why?
  • Is it better to be a communications generalist today or to specialize in a specific skill, like social media?
  • How does one measure the success, or failure, of communications initiatives? How do you know when you are doing it right?
  • How do you find the voice of your boss or your client?
  • I found that last question of particular interest and intrigue. I’ve been fortunate to be an on-the-record spokesman for more than two decades. I’ve also ghost written hundreds of commentaries for individuals over that time. In all of those years, I’m not sure I had ever thought about HOW to find that voice, I just did it.

When I worked for Senator Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, I got there by watching his floor speeches and trying to parrot them. With Senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey, it was by reading his basketball memoir, Life on the Run. With the African-American national not-for-profit leader, it was from speaking one-on-one with him. With the former college president, it was from watching him speak to small groups. While each experience was different, each also shared a common thread. It was about finding voice in the setting where the speaker was most comfortable, most him or herself.

These were the sorts of questions that my 22-year-old self would never have known to ask. Heck, these are questions that my 30-year-old self wouldn’t have asked either. But these students were not just hearing the stories, but they were listening to them. And they were trying to distill these tales into useable lessons that would help them secure the jobs they sought and enter the careers they dreamed of.

At the same time, they reminded me of why I do what I do, what drew me to it, and what brings me the joy that keeps me from chucking it all and opening that cupcake shop on Grand Cayman. In teaching last week, I learned – or re-learned – a great deal.

(The above was also published in LinkedIn Pulse.)

How Protected Should Our College Students Be?

As it was preparing for the Charlottesville showdown, Eduflack’s alma mater, the University of Virginia, urged its students to remain in their dorms and not join in the protests against the nazis marching through town. 

While it is a college’s top responsibility to keep its students safe, is this really the message an elite university should be sending? Shouldn’t dear ol’ U.Va. be teaching its students to speak out and speak up instead?

This is the topic we explore on the latest episode of TrumpED on the BAM! Radio Network. Give it a listen. Give it a shout out!

Can You Teach a Superpower?

Last week, dear ol’ Eduflack wrote about the incredible learning experiences the Edu-family is getting from kickboxing. so this week, I’d like to turn the rostrum over to one of my Tiger Schulmann sisters, Amy Vondrak. 

Dr. Vondrak is a professor of English, an instigator of Utopia, and a TSMMA Yellow Belt (which means she outranks me and has physically kicked my butt on the mat.) Dr. Vondrak has captured a powerful perspective to the experience that just has to be shared whole cloth. So here goes …

 

A few nights ago at Tiger Schulmann’s Princeton, Sensei gave the advanced kickboxing class a scolding. About half the class had been late, which earned us quite a dressing down. The core message of his admonishment was the importance of self-discipline. In fact, the core of almost every one of Sensei’s talks is self-discipline. Now, even though (as he has often told us), “Sensei” means “born before,” I often feel just a bit odd about being the recipient of the wisdom of a man 20 years my junior. But actually, Sensei is right about a lot of things, and discipline is one of them.

During his scolding, I thought about my students, as I often do at martial arts. I’ve taught developmental composition at a community college for 13 years. Sensei teaches martial arts much like I teach writing: he takes complex series of moves and “scaffolds” them, taking them a step at a time. Learning a double-leg take down to side mount to triangle choke takes weeks as we work through each of the component parts of each move. And Sensei often tells us that if we don’t show up to class, on time and consistently, we are not likely to get any better at martial arts. I tell my students the same thing, but most of the time, they don’t listen.

I love my students. They have big dreams and so much potential. By and large, they are smart people who have been failed by an archaic educational system. But much of that potential gets lost because of the one thing they don’t have: self-discipline. They face huge challenges in life. They have jobs and kids and no money and crazy lives, so there are plenty of good reasons why it’s not so easy for them to get their work done and their butts in class. I’m not saying my students are lazy. Self-discipline is not a character trait, it’s a skill, one that they lack just as they lack writing skills. So they fail. Those of you who follow higher ed know that college students fail in great numbers. Then they feel even less able to take their place in the world, they feel even less powerful than they did when they walked into my class. That is not my mission as a teacher. My job is to show them their strength.

Along with Eduflack, I fought in the 42nd Challenge of Champions. I chose to fight up a division, literally fighting above my belt, and spent the late winter and spring trying to get mentally and physically prepared. The physical part was easier than the mental. It’s easier to face burpees than fears. But I did it: I got on the mat and I fought, as did many of my TSMMA Princeton teammates. Now, I’ve been going to the CoC as either a parent or spouse of a competitor for years, and this was my second time competing. Our family is very familiar with the emotional intensity of that day. But for some reason, this CoC showed me something I had not fully seen before: the way in which fighting lets us win our life battles. Of course, I know that martial arts is way more than a workout. Of course I’d been vaguely aware that for all of us on the mat, it’s not just about getting in shape. But this CoC gave me a glimpse into just how much we are fighting our demons, and winning. We may not be superheroes, but fighting makes us feel like when life starts shooting, we’ve got metal bracelets, a cool shield, and some amazing powers. In reality, our amazing superpower is self-discipline.

It is not easy to drag your tired self out to kickboxing on a Thursday night knowing that someone better than you is likely going to punch you in the face – sure, they’ll do it with respect and camraderie, but whatever, they’re still punching you in the face. And at the end of a few rounds of that, those burpees are waiting. But we do it. Again, and again, and again. Why? Discipline. And that discipline gives us tremendous power. We are less afraid of our demons and we are more powerful in our fight against them because our spines are stiffened with strong discipline. Bring it on bad guys, we got this.

My focus as a teacher has long been on content: how to read and write. Of course, I’ve tried for a long time to figure out how to teach grit, or growth mindset, or whatever trendy term is hot this week. But as many of the critics of those buzzwords will say, how do you teach grit? “Grit” always seems to be found in heroic stories of grand characters who beat enormous odds. In contrast, self-discipline is small and boring. Self-discipline is the accumulation of many daily acts, most of which may seem unimportant in the individual, but are massively important in the aggregate. But self-discipline is a skill which can be taught, which can be broken down into its component parts and taught a step at a time with lots of practice. So this summer I am cooking up a semester-long self-discipline project to roll out in the fall.

As a community college teacher, I’m not just trying to help students become better writers. Community college can be transformative, and it’s my job to help students feel empowered to change their lives. What I saw at the CoC was ordinary people fighting their demons with daily discipline, winning, and growing stronger because of it. This is what I want to share with my students as well – be disciplined, not just for your grade, but because your discipline will make you stronger than the world that tries every day to cut you down. Do your work. Fight for your grades. Fight for your degree. Because your fight, your discipline, gives you superpowers.


Dr. Amy Vondrak (r) with Megan Barndt.

Can We Check Our Impulse to Condemn?

It should come as no surprise, but we aren’t the most open-minded, slow-to-judgment crowd in education policy. We haven’t been for generations, and we certainly aren’t now. And that’s a crying shame.

The embodiment of this in 2017 is the Pavlovian response by many to condemn everything and anything that may be proposed by EdSec Betsy DeVos almost as quickly as she unveils it. While dear ol’ Eduflack gets that there may be a great deal of policy disagreements in the coming years, are we really willing to say there isn’t a single issue where there may be some common ground for a discussion? Is there not a single idea that may be put forward that is at least worth a productive discussion?

We examine this topic on this week’s #TrumpED program on the BAM! Radio Network. My hope is that we can soon all just take a collective breath and actually consider before condemning. But the realist in me realizing my hopes are often unfulfilled.

Regardless, give it a listen.

Improving the #STEM Teacher Pipeline in New Jersey

Earlier this month, dear ol’ Eduflack had the honor and privilege of testifying before the New Jersey General Assembly’s Higher Education Committee. The topic? How to improve the recruitment, preparation, and support of STEM teachers for the state’s high-need schools. While I almost never speak with prepared remarks, this time, I did. While I strayed a little (including talking about chasing education unicorns), here is the totality of what I intended to say:
Five years ago, New Jersey committed to becoming a national leader in recruiting, preparing, and supporting exemplary STEM teachers.

Through the New Jersey Teaching Fellows program, innovative teacher preparation efforts are currently underway at The College of New Jersey, Montclair State University, Rowan University, Rutgers University-Camden, and William Paterson University. The Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation is working with these institutions of higher education to create a more effective teacher education model focused on a yearlong classroom experience, rigorous academic work, and ongoing mentoring and support.

By focusing on clinical experience and giving prospective teachers as much time in K-12 classrooms as possible, these programs ensure all of their graduates understand the challenges of teaching in a high-need school, and all are prepared to succeed as teachers of record from day one.

New Jersey is one of five states to offer the Teaching Fellows program, including Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, and Georgia. The New Jersey program has grown from the previous work of these states, learning from their challenges and building on their successes from the start.

Looking at these other programs, we can see the impact the New Jersey Teaching Fellows program can have long term. A future where effective teachers remain in high-need schools as a career, not just for a year or three. A future where colleges and school districts work together to ensure a pipeline of strong STEM teachers prepared to meet the needs of our local schools and the expectations of an ever-changing workforce.

The Teaching Fellows program is not a cookie cutter effort. Far from it. The New Jersey Teaching Fellows program was created specifically to meet the needs and expectations of New Jersey, its schools, and its communities. This program is New Jersey, and its graduates reflect the very best the state has to offer. It should be no surprise that the Woodrow Wilson Foundation calls New Jersey home, with our headquarters located just a few miles up Route 1.

As you all know, New Jersey has 24 traditional teacher education programs, housed in the state’s colleges and universities. In recent years, across all of those programs, the state has produced as few as 9 physics teachers and 16 chemistry teachers annually. These numbers are hardly enough to fill all of the STEM hiring needs in the state’s 600+ school districts. The problems of filling these teaching positions are even greater in high-need districts.

The Woodrow Wilson Foundation partners with colleges and universities to create a more effective teacher education program focused on a yearlong classroom experience, rigorous academic work, and ongoing mentoring. The year-long program includes:

  • Admission to a master’s degree program at a well-established NJ partner university
  • Preparation for teacher certification in science, math, or technology education
  • Extensive clinical experience teaching in a high-need urban or rural secondary school for one full year prior to becoming the teacher-of-record in a high-need science or math classroom
  • Support and mentoring throughout the first three years as teacher of record

In Woodrow Wilson’s past eight years of work, we have been helping states like New Jersey strengthen the pipeline to provide excellent teachers for high-need schools. And we have done it while increasing the number of teachers of color assuming STEM teaching positions in New Jersey classrooms.

Nationally, approximately 16 percent of all teachers are people of color. Those numbers are notably smaller when it comes to individuals teaching science, technology, engineering, and math in our secondary schools. Targeting only those with strong STEM backgrounds, 41 percent of New Jersey Teaching Fellows are people of color.

The value of the New Jersey Teaching Fellowship model can be seen in the teacher preparation regulations adopted by the state a little more than a year ago. In focusing on the value of clinical experience, mentoring, and the overall quality of teacher candidates, the state is now looking to all seeking to become New Jersey educators to follow a preparation path similar to those taken by New Jersey Teaching Fellows.

Later this year, the Woodrow Wilson Foundation will announce its fourth and final class of New Jersey Teaching Fellows. As of last year, the Woodrow Wilson Foundation awarded 180 Fellowships to high-achieving STEM students to become science, technology, engineering and math teachers in the New Jersey schools and districts that need them most.

Let me share a few facts from the New Jersey Teaching Fellows program with you, in addition to the 41 percent statistic offered earlier. In a profession where three-quarters of all educators are female, 43 percent of New Jersey Teaching Fellows are male. Last year alone, 25 percent of all Teaching Fellows already held advanced degrees, including Ph.Ds, law degrees, and M.Ds. They are a mix of recent college graduates, career changers, and former military. All bring real STEM content knowledge to New Jersey classrooms. All are committing to careers, not stints, as New Jersey public school teachers.

The educators produced through the Teaching Fellowship are enough to fill the STEM vacancies in the state’s highest-need school districts. Among the people who received these Fellowships are a Ph.D. cancer researcher who has taught at Princeton University, and a geologist and veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, now teaching in Orange. The Fellowship draws on in-state talent: 82 percent of our Fellows are New Jersey residents.

Each Fellow is committed to teaching for at least three years in New Jersey’s urban and rural schools ̶ in cities and towns such as Bridgeton, Camden, Newark, New Brunswick, Orange, Passaic, Paterson, Trenton, and dozens more. We know from other states where we have been doing this work longer, that roughly 80 percent of Woodrow Wilson Teaching Fellows remain in teaching after finishing their three-year commitment, far surpassing national trends that show rates of teacher attrition as high as 40–60 percent in the first three years on the job.

A coalition of support for the Woodrow Wilson New Jersey Teaching Fellowship program has also been developed, which includes the Governor, key legislators on both sides of the aisle, the Commissioner of Education, the Secretary of Higher Education, school districts, universities, the NJEA, the business community, and philanthropy.

When the program was invited to New Jersey, our promise to the state was simple. We would work with our partner universities to help transform their STEM teacher preparation efforts. We would work with local school districts to ensure they, and their students, are getting the STEM teachers they need. And we would help prepare three cohorts of teachers for New Jersey schools.

The success on each of our partner campuses, coupled with the new state teacher preparation regs, demonstrate success on point one. The more than 20 high-need districts currently employing New Jersey Teaching Fellows answer point two. And our commitment to now add a fourth cohort of New Jersey Teaching Fellows to ensure ongoing staffing needs are met moves beyond our promise in point three.

In each Woodrow Wilson Teaching Fellow state, program sustainability is always a non-negotiable. The program is constructed so that outside philanthropy funds the first three years of Teaching Fellows. In New Jersey, we were able to extend that to four. Currently, each of our university partners has identified and committed to a plan to keep the program going on their campuses, whether that be through an increased focus on the clinical experience, a robust mentoring program, or the continuation of a stipended Fellowship program.

It is our hope that the Legislature sees the value this program plays in recruiting and preparing excellent educators, particularly those from disadvantaged groups, who may otherwise have never considered teaching as a profession. It is our hope that we all can see the impact this program is currently having. And it is our hope that the state continues this program, sustaining the New Jersey Teaching Fellows effort and ensuring generations of effective STEM teachers for the state’s high-need schools.