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Teaching Industrial Arts: Then and Now

Teaching Industrial Arts: Then and Now

Steve Green | Teaching

I’m a 58 year, old shop teacher. Nowadays, we refer to ourselves as “dinosaurs”. Currently, Sacramento has labeled us “Career Technical Educators”. At the end of a long line of job titles, we still teach the same subject in the same way, even with the advent and infusion of computers into the shop. Some of the technology has not changed in 150, 500, and even 3000+ years. It’s just shinier.

Most industrial arts instructors have had similar backgrounds. In most comprehensive, accredited public schools, a Bachelor’s degree is required.

In K though 12th grades, a credential is also a requisite. The credential is the equivalent of a license to teach, and in terms of education, can be considered another degree program. Then there is the CLAD; (Cross-Cultural Language and Academic Development). It’s another “hurdle” to get over. Here is where the so-called “CORE” educators and the vocational educators part company. You can’t teach your area without practical experience; at least 10-20 years of it. An English or math teacher can get a job right out of college. However, both types of teachers are paid the same rate.

There is no CORE subject area that doesn’t intermix or “cross” a woodshop’s curriculum. There is at least one example for each area that validates this statement. However, there are prevailing attitudes. “Those students not “tracked” for college; therefore we will program them into a shop class”. The A to G recommendations, (they are NOT requirements as posted illegally), take precedence over any empirical study. The irony is respected studies have shown that without the use of the hand, we would not have culture, language, or even civilization. Another irony is the more you use your hands, the more neurotransmitters you will develop. Is this not a requirement for critical, college level thinking? Yet society continues to place less value on those people that work with their hands, and more value on an abstract university degree. Why?

I think this is because of the US’s apathy toward other nation’s work ethics, particularly Japan. Secondly, I think the U.S. currently considers itself to be the world’s data repository. We gave our industrial tooling, skills, and wills away to 2nd and 3rd world countries. Lastly, the public is being sold a “bill of goods” by university chancellors that want to remain gainfully employed and keep a new load of recruits applying for college entrance every year. The tragedy is the public is lapping it up like a snow cone. Even if families have to go deep into debt and outstanding student loans rival the gross national product. Those families want to point to the first son or daughter in their family to attend college, even if they don’t graduate.

Nowadays, many fewer high school graduates say their drawn to the glamor and perceived respect a college education brings. However, they still can’t point to a particular occupation and say that is what they want to do when they finish college. In past years, I had a student that stayed with my program for 4 years. He graduated, then entered a public program to earn his Airframe and Power plant license. The last I heard from him, he was well employed as an aircraft mechanic. (With other firms approaching him for his skills). Another former woodshop student brought his wife and newborn daughter back to my shop. He wanted to thank me for giving him the basic tool skills he uses in his apprenticeship with the plumber’s union. Every shop teacher has his or her own success stories to tell. But the resulting lament goes like this, “Will someone please dare tell me that the skills don’t transfer?  Will the public stop telling me they don’t know how I do it?"

When will public education start paying me what I’m worth or at least pay a liveable wage?  

Recently, more female students have been registering for shop classes than in the 1950’s. That number has been climbing steadily, but not to the extent that shop teachers would like. There are the historical reasons for that discrepancy. After World War II, returning male veterans would come home to take back their factory jobs, occupied by “Rosie the Riveter”. So there was little reason for school counselors to program female students into shop classes.  A deficit of students in shop classes equals no need to have those classes in the eyes of myopic administrators. Shop classes are simply not put on the master schedule and the shop teacher’s hours are cut back accordingly, much to the disdain and disappointment of some students and the consternation of some parents.

If those parents dare protest the changes at any administrative level, they are given the “party line”. If they go further, they’re labeled as rebels, reprobates, and a host of other educational monikers. There are only two possible outcomes. One: after much dissension, the parent will acquiesce to district and school policies. The second: the parent will be invited to “find surroundings more to their liking, elsewhere”. In every event, the parent loses. Therefore, the teacher and the student will lose as well.

There are obvious cultural reasons women do not take shop classes. In Hispanic countries for example, it’s an issue of macho and machismo that takes priority. In Hispanic countries, men must retain control of the household and community, or they lose their standing as the people in control. They are socially castrated.

In other families’, the situation has changed to respect the wishes of the more focused and motivated “mejores”. Some female students that have been integrated into American society, the American mindset, and have realized that they often need to be the bread winner in a family. These females make the BEST students because they absolutely know the reason that they’re in shop classes. They know that there’s only one way out of the proverbial “barrio”. That is to: LEARN A SKILL AND A TRADE THEN MARKET THEMSELVES TO INDUSTRY.

California State Standards Tests are a band-aid in partial response to a broken educational system. The CAHSEE (California High School Exit Exam), only measures passage of a one-size-fits-all English and math test. Neither set of tests are applied to industrial arts. Even though math, reading, and writing are skill sets that craftspeople use every day. The ETS (Educational Testing Service) is the sole vendor of those tests. It makes one wonder, who’s being paid off and where is the public oversight? Especially in light of the percentage of California’s budget, spent on education. It is 40%, and that’s a majority considering the break-up of the rest of the pie. No wonder the Governor wants to get his hands on it. Electives, including industrial arts are the first to be killed in a budget crisis. They are cost intensive programs. A turnkey curriculum, at the time of this writing can cost $300,000. But isn’t the payoff worth it? Or should we still put our hopes (and money), on those few college freshmen entering a 4-year program, that may not graduate.

This is the genesis of those private vocational schools that have sprung up in the last 15 years. Some of them offer curriculum and facilities next to none. They also have a bevy of employers ready to snap up graduates in their 3rd of 4 years. Those waiting employers are the ones that are equipping the school. Ergo, public school shop curriculum can’t compete with those odds. Charter schools are most districts’ answer to these private schools. However, charter schools aren’t interested in comprehensive curriculum. Just English, Science, Math, and Social Studies. Not always in that order.

Since budgets are continuously being cut in favor of the CORE curriculum, shop teachers are required by necessity, to beg, borrow, or steal. Especially beg. It is against California State Education Code to charge students a shop fee for material. However, it’s okay to ask for a “donation”. That’s the way most shop teachers get around the law and at least “keep their monetary head above water”. After that, it’s up to the teacher to spend himself into going back to a job that can, at the very least, feed their family.

Since this country has proven itself to be crisis-oriented; we industrial arts teachers will to have wait until the public’s cars are broken down and blocking traffic, there are not enough skilled rough and finish carpenters to keep up with the demand for new houses, IKEA can’t supply enough table for those computers to sit on, and the computers themselves are on the blink with no skilled technician to fix them. But what do I know? I’m just a dinosaur with dirt under my fingernails.


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