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May 1, 1998
Vol. 55
No. 8

Bringing the Workplace to the Classroom

Minnesota businesses are helping teachers link important job skills with classroom lessons and graduation standards.

Instructional Strategies
Each day, teachers create meaningful learning activities that reflect local and state curriculum and standards. In school contexts, they prepare students for the next unit, grade, or level. But how can teachers develop lessons that better connect school learning with workplace skills?
This question was a top priority when three central Minnesota school districts, the Chamber of Commerce, business representatives, and public service organizations decided to help teachers translate workplace expectations into school lessons. The result was the Relevance Counts Institute through which teachers gain a basic understanding of various workplaces. Those who want a deeper understanding of businesses participate in the Teachers in Business program.

Relevance Counts Institute

The Relevance Counts Institute introduces teachers to skills employees need for success in various workplaces. On the first day of the institute, teachers learn specific examples of how job skills are used, such as determining pressure, volume, and coverage of fire sprinklers and extinguishers at the fire department, or clear, concise technical writing at a metal fabrication company that designs and manufactures computer-controlled machines. The second day, they visit businesses to see how employees apply these skills.
Our business volunteers represent a diverse group: optical lens grinding, printing, quarry mining, metal machining, banking, and medicine. When we began the program, many were apprehensive about the kind of information to provide, so we offered briefings to review the institute's purpose and identify material teachers might find useful. We also asked speakers to choose specific Minnesota Graduation Standards they thought applied to their field and to explain how their employees use these skills. We advised presenters to focus on their places of employment, not what they thought schools should be doing.
The first day of the institute opened with an overview emphasizing the need for businesses and schools to share their expectations and expertise. One presenter's points were underscored by the presence of his daughter and son, who described the importance of school to their part-time jobs as waitress and paper carrier. The children also provided details about the skills expected of them: cooperation, mathematical estimation, and organization.
For the rest of the day, teachers attended four one-hour sessions. One of the most popular speakers was nicknamed "the rock guy." A manager of a large granite quarry, he is a favorite because he shares specific examples that show how employees use math and language skills at his quarry. In fact, the most popular speakers specifically link the workplace and school.
On the second day, teachers chose two businesses to observe where they could see employees using the skills described during the workshop. Teachers were amazed by the technical skills many jobs required and how often tasks depended on an employee's ability to communicate and get along with coworkers.

Teachers in Business

After the first year's institute, several teachers wanted a more in-depth experience. We accommodated them with Teachers in Business, which pairs a teacher and business partner for 80 hours during the summer.
Although many teachers requested this experience, we soon learned we were competing with other summer activities. Thus, we offered incentives: college credit for completing Teachers in Business and a $500 stipend that could be applied to tuition or taken as cash. Interestingly, we had far less difficulty recruiting businesses, even though they had to contribute $600 for each teacher they "hired." We attribute this to the assistance of our principal partners in the project, the Chamber of Commerce and Stearns-Benton Employment and Training Council.
As Teachers in Business began, business representatives were uncertain about what teachers wanted to learn. Teachers knew little about the businesses hiring them. To relieve concerns, we scheduled time for each teacher and business partner to discuss expectations and duties and map out a work schedule. When the teachers completed internships, each pair described the three-week experience at a debriefing. Common themes included trust, friendship, understanding, and a renewed commitment to relevant classroom instruction.

Classroom Applications

Both the Relevance Counts Institute and Teachers in Business program gave teachers the knowledge and confidence to change their lessons in areas such as problem solving, communication, and social responsibility. One 5th grade teacher who worked at a bank emphasized accuracy in her math classes the following year. She explained how tellers are accountable for their computations and that seemingly insignificant errors are critical to the bank and its customers. For the entire school year, she required students to keep a math ledger with simulated banking transactions. It was an important tool for teaching concepts related to simple and compound interest.
A senior high math teacher worked at a manufacturing plant that builds large automated machines. The company specializes in machining metal to tolerances of several thousandths of a millimeter. The teacher observed construction of one of these machines from the design phase to assembly. Impressed with how groups of employees worked together to solve problems, he incorporated more group problem-solving activities into his classes.
Other teachers involved students in more applied problem-solving situations, devoted additional time to estimating, and reemphasized metrics. Many teachers also created interdisciplinary projects, such as writing reports in language arts based on data collected in science class and analyzed in math class.
One of the most far-reaching benefits occurred in an elementary school. Struck by the amount of time employees of a financial institution spent developing short- and long-term goals, an elementary teacher and her principal initiated a similar process. During staff meetings, participants prioritized ways to make the school more productive. Then they incorporated their objectives into action plans for the coming year. This approach unified staff, built a feeling of ownership in the school, and motivated teachers to change their teaching.
Business sponsors benefited from the program, too. During informal conversations, teachers described how Graduation Standards might affect employees' children. One CEO invited a teacher to tell employees how her students profited from parent involvement. Several businesses asked teachers to emphasize to students and other educators the fact that many technical and professional vocations are open to hardworking employees without four-year degrees.
The Relevance Counts Institute and Teachers in Business program are important forums where teachers and employers can work together. They're also the first steps toward helping students see the connections between what they learn in school and skills needed at work. Now, when students ask "Why do we have to learn this stuff?" teachers feel more confident than ever replying, "Because your job may depend on it!"

Brian A. Bottge has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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