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Shop is Not a Four-Letter Word

Jim Berman

Chef Instructor working with 10th, 11th & 12th graders; Wilmington, DE
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This blog is the first of three in a series on Career and Technical Education.

A Viable Alternative to "Success"

What shop class is not:

  • A predetermined destination for students with discipline issues
  • The alternative venue for teenage offenders opting to avoid prison
  • A bandage for an oft-bleeding system
  • Shop class from the "Happy Days" generation
  • The academic elitist's unspoken four letter word: a dead-end

What shop class is:

  • A road between "When will I ever use this?" and "using this"
  • Engaging for students that are not always easily engaged
  • Part of the solution: an opportunity.

Most importantly, it is not a "One Way" street sign firmly embedded in the university-only parochial concrete that points to college as the only means to ensure success. Indeed, it is surprising that so many educators believe that all children -- regardless of interest or skills -- should attend a four-year college.

A New York Times article from September 2011 cites a study by the nonprofit Complete College America that brings to light how many students entering the post-secondary arena are simply not equipped or engaged to see the process through to fruition:

"In Texas, for example, of every 100 students who enrolled in a public college, 79 started at a community college, and only two of them earned a two-year degree on time; even after four years, only seven of them graduated. Of the 21 of those 100 who enrolled at a four-year college, five graduated on time; after eight years, only 13 had earned a degree."

So why do we insist that higher ed must require college-level pre-calc and advanced chemistry?

Why Not Culinary Arts and Sheet Metal?

College works for many, many students -- just ask your physician! But the truth is that students are not one size-fits-all. College is not the predetermined path from cradle to career that we think it is. We coddle and coerce, we tutor and talk, we insist on the square peg fitting snugly in the round hole.


The world has changed a lot in the last 20 years, and shop class is not shop class -- not the way it used to be. Now called "career education," it is for the inspirable students, "in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat," as Theodore Roosevelt put it, that are learning hand-held trades. "Shop class," "technical education" and "vocational pathway" are not dirty words. In fact, technical education is the foundation that can work for many of our students.

Not Your Father's Shop Class

I began my third career as a teacher with little idea of what to expect. I wanted to teach, that much I knew. Trade school, I thought, was my career path. High school? Not really. A vocational school? Certainly not. After all, that's where kids go instead of jail.

But when I got there, I realized that I could not have been more mistaken. On my very first day, my supervisor, Mr. Wells, walked me through the halls. He introduced me to Mr. Davis, Automotive Technology instructor. Davis explained that his students are almost always in demand, often securing good employment before making the big walk in June.

I saw students working beneath the undercarriage of cars, suspended with myriad of diagnostic cables, wires and hoses that made a surgical suite look plebian.

I saw the Carpentry classroom, complete with a house being built from the foundation, wired by the Electrical Trades students and run with pipe by the Plumbing crew. Mr. Wells hustled me off to Medical Assisting where a patient was splayed out on gurney with all the requisite needles and beeping monitors you would see at Cedars-Sinai or the Mayo Clinic. The Welding room was glowing with the azure, electric-white glow from plasma torches ripping through metal. The din from the Automotive Body Repair garage was deafening. Mr. Wells explained that we were witnessing a team on a hard deadline to finish the repair and paint work on a '77 Corvette that was heading to a car show the following week. And the tour went on and on.

There have been many references to contemporary vocational education as "not your father's shop class" -- so much so, that a quick search lands you on no fewer than a dozen pages of articles. There is nothing wrong with the hands-on education your father received. Actually, it was alright, but somewhere along the way, we forgot just how lost we'd be as a society without it.

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Jim Berman

Chef Instructor working with 10th, 11th & 12th graders; Wilmington, DE

Comments (9) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Sheila in Colorado's picture
Sheila in Colorado
Arts Education Manager, State Agency

In Colorado, Career and Technical Education is through the Community College System and prepares students for many occupations and careers including those in the Creative Industries. The third annual Creative Careers Festival is February 24 and will connect over 800 high school students with professional in fields such as film, digital media, 3-D animation, web design, stagecraft, audio technology and more!

OsoPardo's picture

I'm an Electrical Engineer that started down that path through a HS Electronics class. Yes, I also finished a BS degree in one of the most difficult undergraduate programs offered anywhere. I was bored to tears with English Lit, Composition and History. My HS Math teacher was incompetent, but the guy who taught the Electronics class was a retired engineer who had a talent for teaching. Science and Physics where where my talent was found. I owe the guy who taught Electronics a great deal of gratitude.

Years later, I was working for a large electrical manufacturer designing and implementing distributed generation system for hospitals, large office buildings and shopping malls. I was having trouble finding competent electricians so I approached one of the local high schools. Turns out they had dropped the "trades" as they put it.

Have you ever tried to hire an electrician or plumber?? Bet they make a better living than you do... And this talent is largely ignored. Sad.

Jim Berman's picture
Jim Berman
Chef Instructor working with 10th, 11th & 12th graders; Wilmington, DE

By the way, the New York Times article went on to say that, for example, Tennessee's 27 tech-based community colleges boast a 75% completion rate for skilled trades. Then again, maybe those career preparation terms are dirty words; covered in dirt, sawdust, used motor oil, screen-printers' ink and little flecks of pasta dough. Maybe it is the right fit for preparing some of our youngest contributors to answer the call of 'shop' class. That is, if the wiring is working. I bet an Electrical Trades student could handle that.

Lincoln Marquis's picture
Lincoln Marquis
Culinary Arts grades 10-12 @Louisa County High School piedmont area of VA

CTE is not only valuable for active hands-on learners, but one of the goals for my class is to have _all_ my students learn the skills they will need in the workplace: courtesy, collaboration, tolerance, self-direction, initiative and overcoming unforeseen obstacles.

Dandapani's picture

"The society which scorns excellence in plumbing as a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy: neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water."

Jim Berman's picture
Jim Berman
Chef Instructor working with 10th, 11th & 12th graders; Wilmington, DE

We obviously speak the same language!

Lisa Mims's picture
Lisa Mims
5th grade teacher /Education blogger

My son attended DelCastle! He majored in Graphic Design, but I love what you're doing!

Jim Berman's picture
Jim Berman
Chef Instructor working with 10th, 11th & 12th graders; Wilmington, DE

[quote]My son attended DelCastle! He majored in Graphic Design, but I love what you're doing![/quote]

Thank you!! We work hard at what we do and the students seem to really take to the challenges.

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