By Linda Romano
When I was a junior in high school, I would study, study, study. I had flashcards. I did everything you were supposed to do. I even slept with a textbook under my pillow, hoping that something would sink in overnight. But I was still failing.
I just couldn’t keep up because the one thing I did not do was go to school every day. My absences piled up. I wasn’t in class enough to really understand the material, and my home life was so complicated, it was just very difficult to keep up with everything.
Today, we try to teach the “whole child,” mindful of circumstances that might be affecting a student’s capacity to learn — and influencing whether they go to school at all. Back then? My teachers were kind, even sympathetic, but they never looked into what was behind my failure. They believed in that old saw, “You just aren’t applying yourself.”
The truth is, I had a lot of responsibility at home. When I was in eighth grade, my mother and sister had a terrible car accident that left my mother in need of care. I stayed home to take care of her.
This is exactly what our students are experiencing today — it might not be this exact situation, but poor academic progress often means something is going on in their home life that is interrupting their ability to engage. I see this among my students at Newburgh Free Academy, the high school where I teach, and I know from experience: Once you chalk up so many absences, you begin to think it’s not worth going to school at all.
Turning things around
Everything changed for me, though, when I learned about career and technical education. I didn’t know what CTE was, I only knew I was excited about the teaching nurse who visited our school one day. She was from New York state’s Boards of Cooperative Educational Services — BOCES — a cooperative learning program that includes lots of choices for what we now call CTE.
I’d already been helping to care for my mother: The home healthcare aide showed me how to gently bathe a patient who is bedridden, how to monitor medications and help with physical therapy. When I finally enrolled in the nursing program at BOCES, the program was relevant to my life, and I felt I had a purpose. Healthcare skills made more sense to me than worksheets and textbooks. I learned algebra as I calculated doses of medicine. The more I went to the clinical sites, the more connected I felt. I could see a future for myself after high school: I could be a nurse.
Healthcare skills made more sense to me than worksheets and textbooks.
Honestly, I think I’d kind of given up for a while, but the nursing program renewed my desire to learn.
And what a payoff. When I graduated from high school, I was a licensed practical nurse, and I immediately got a job among the nurses I’d come to know during my mother’s hospital stay. I made a career of nursing, and then taught nursing to kids who were just like me.
Experiential learning is a key part of CTE, and it can be introduced at the earliest ages. When my high school students said they’d like to work with children, we started Scholars in Scrubs, a Saturday program where they teach children as young as 5 years old, introducing them to all the systems of the body and describing different medical specialties. The children get to play with the walkers and the canes, examine each other’s eyes, weigh each other, even take their blood pressure.
This sort of experiential learning doesn’t just build a skill set — it builds confidence. Students can try and fail — and realize they can try again until they get it right. It reassures them of their own inner talent and builds skills like teamwork, leadership and public speaking.
This sort of experiential learning doesn’t just build a skill set — it builds confidence.
I love seeing young people go from being so timid they won’t speak above a whisper, to confidently conducting class with younger kids and then going on to successful careers in healthcare. And that’s what happens — many of my students become nurses, and some even return to Newburgh and work in our community.
Every child should have the opportunity I had. Never mind the mechanical skills like learning CPR and taking blood pressure. Never mind the stable careers in healthcare — as crucial as those can be. It’s the confidence and resourcefulness students build in our program that is most valuable: These skills will serve them well no matter what.
Linda Romano is a health science educator at the Newburgh Free Academy in Newburgh, N.Y., and a member of New York State United Teachers. She is president of the New York State Association for Career and Technical Education. Special thanks to NYSUT for first sharing Romano’s experience in NYSUT United.
Republished with permission from AFT Voices.
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