Placement: a fundamental consideration in supporting the whole teacher

In this article is published in the September 2019 edition of ASCD EDAdvantage, I wrote about my summer externship at WNIT in South Bend.  Organized and funded through the South Bend Regional Chamber, over forty teachers stepped out of their classrooms and into different industries and businesses to gain a “real world” experience.

Kate Lee of the South Bend Regional Chamber matches teachers with business and organizations to begin meeting the needs of both.

Teacher Externships: another thing we have to do

In the spring of 2019, Indiana House Bill 1002 Career and Technical Education outlined how teachers would need to complete an “externship” of fifteen workforce hours in the community where they teach to renew their license, starting this July.  This option in license renewal requires teachers to contribute to their professional growth plan by working in an industry that is relevant to their discipline. When it hit the press, the bill was met with a chorus of criticism from teachers and education advocates from around the state. Indiana state representative, Tonya Pfaff of Terre Haute, a high school math teacher who voted against it, galvanized the teacher defense in an interview with the Indianapolis Star. ”I’ll tell you why teachers are upset.  It’s because it’s just another thing that we have to do.” (Indianapolis Star) She added, “we’re trying to figure out when we’re supposed to have time to go and find an externship.”

Click on the image for a PDF version of this article.

Many of us wondered the same thing: where, how, with whom would we set up an “externship”?  It was not long after the March hullabaloo that teachers in my part of the state received an email inviting us to consider an externship through the South Bend Regional Chamber of Commerce. It read, “the externships are a paid opportunity for educators to connect with area business partners and learn about what they do, the skill sets required of their employees, and how what is being taught and shared with students is relevant in the “real world.” I applied for and won a spot, as did forty-two other teachers.  In my application, I explained where I hoped to work, and they handled the rest. Each teacher got placed with an organization in the community, which solved perhaps the biggest problem of the teacher externship program: placement. 

My Externship Experience  

WNIT Producer, Brent Fox interviews a member of the Plymouth Library staff.

I am a language and media teacher and was placed with our local PBS station. After a tour and some introductions, I worked on three interesting projects with three different producers. In the first, I shadowed a producer as he shot and edited a story on library summer programming in Plymouth, Indiana. It was right around the celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of Apollo 11 lunar landing, so kids had crafted bottle rockets and shot them off (under librarian supervision). In my second project, I researched newspaper articles from the 1890s and early 1900s about an electric fountain donated to South Bend by one of the Studebaker brothers. That fountain has new life today, and I contributed some of the research to its documentary. Finally, I accompanied another producer to a local woodshop where high end toys and gifts are made using CNC routers and other modern equipment.  By the end of the week, I had seen, heard, and learned a lot.

The Externship Experience of others

WNIT multimedia journalist, Kayla Williams, gathers b-roll footage at the South Bend Woodworks.

While I landed in a television studio, other teachers arrived in places like a 9-1-1 call center, a plastics manufacturing plant, an international airport, the city’s utilities offices, a health care facility, a metalworks shop, an energy plant, and a construction company to name a few. Afterwards, we gathered to share-out our experiences, and wow, we had some experiences. Teacher, Barb Pasionek-Wieczorek wrote that the 9-1-1 center, “far exceeded” her expectations, and Stacy Eck added that through her work at a convention center, “I have made plans to extend our career lesson series to incorporate more of a focus on soft skills.  Providing direct instruction to students on the necessary, basic life skills that can get them a job to kick-start their career (rather than focusing solely on their end career goals).”  South Bend teacher, Dana St. Juliana reflected on her international airport externship, “Air Traffic Control was fascinating.  Seeing the technology they use to monitor and talk to airplanes and having the experience of being on top in the tower when it was all happening was unforgettable.“  Teacher Jennifer McGhee said, “this was such a positive experience for me. I can’t thank the Chamber of Commerce and General Stamping and Metalworks enough for the opportunity to bring real world experience to the classroom.” Assistant Principal, Josiah Parker, summed it up. “I sat in the wrap- up meetings and listened to them (teachers) tell all of the things they had learned. They gained a better understanding of what different careers were really like. They learned what skills were important and how they could integrate them into their classroom.”

Not Without Controversy

Dr. Jennifer McCormick, Indiana Superintendent of Instruction visited Penn High School and the PNN Studio in November of 2018.

Though the teacher externship had a rocky launch, Indiana State Superintendent, Dr. Jennifer McCormick explained its goals to me, “I believe the intent of the program was for exposure, so that teachers had some relevance to experiences we are trying to prepare our students for. And so I think the intent was just for those reasons.”  She said that the program will change going forward. “I think there is a huge appetite from our general assembly members to change that language and not have it a requirement.” If that happens, then the program will meet her goals of being purposeful, relevant, and autonomous.  If teachers do not feel like it is another thing that they “have to do,” then they are free to realize what teacher, Dana St. Juliana, discovered in her externship, that, “it was so meaningful to be supported by such willing community partners–the Chamber and externship hosts, to realize there’s a village approach to support kids and our future workforce.”

A Place in the Village

South Bend Regional Chamber operates out of the American Trust Place building in downtown South Bend.

In addition to a generous honorarium, rich workplace experiences, and an opportunity to share those experiences, our regional Chamber of Commerce brought teachers out of their classrooms and placed them into the community.  They opened doors, made introductions, and got teachers and employers in the same room. What started off as “another thing teachers have to do” became this suddenly new and valuable perspective on what they think of as the “real world,” or how they see their curriculum and instruction impacting the workforce, or where they see students going after they leave the classroom. Though each teacher got a different placement, each came away with the common experience of gaining a different perspective.  Offering teachers that is sound professional development and caring for teacher well being.

In this article for ASCD EdAdvantage, I wrote about the Indiana Teacher Externship experience in 2019.