A whole new education offered during Teacher in the Workplace

Teacher sands gummy bear tray while foreman watches

Just his third day on the job and George Nahay found himself sanding a molded fiber glass tray fresh out of the press while being closely observed by a foreman and a manager plus another new recruit like him — all while a reporter snapped photos of the entire process.

For Jill Cole, general sales manager at Molded Fiber Glass Tray Co. in Linesville, learning experiences like Nahay’s provided a useful reminder.

“We always forget that at one point we were the new person,” she said. “Somebody had to show us.”

Nahay isn’t new to learning, but in his usual place of employment he’s the one doing the showing as a technology education teacher at Saegertown Junior-Senior High. For several days this week, he and other teachers from schools throughout the three local districts had a chance to re-experience that mixture of nerves and excitement familiar to new employees everywhere.

The same feeling was evident from the look on Nahay’s face as he stopped his sanding and glanced at his observers as though to say, “I think I’m done — am I done?”

It turned out that Nahay was done sanding the standard-size starch tray in his hands, but like the tray, which had a long future in the manufacturing of gummy bears ahead of it, he had more tasks ahead, too.

He and Heidi Dickerson, a German teacher at Conneaut Area Senior High, were completing a three-day Teacher in the Workplace experience at MFG Tray, one of 16 Crawford County businesses and organizations hosting nearly twice that many teachers this week. After their mini-internships, the participants gathered Thursday to present the lesson plans they hope to implement using their direct-from-the-workplace experiences to better prepare students who will soon be entering the working world themselves.

The field experiences come after a two-day Tech Skills in the Workplace conference held last week with local business leaders and nationally known education writer Thomas C. Murray as the keynote speaker. All in all, it’s been an extended dive into thinking about how best to prepare students for the world they’ll enter after the graduate from high school — all funded by a Pennsylvania Department of Education grant, according to Ann Noonen, the Crawford Central School District administrator who helped organize the event along with representatives from Conneaut and PENNCREST school districts.

Early evaluations of the teachers’ performances were positive. At MFG, while Nahay was getting a taste of multiple stops in the production process, much of Dickerson’s time was spent with the sales department. About 20 percent of the company’s business is international, according to Cole, so Dickerson’s expertise in German was relevant.

Even more importantly, Dickerson said, she was seeing first-hand the importance of communication skills in the workplace. The past school year has provided example after example of the importance of technological and communications literacy, according to Dickerson, from the near-constant stream of students with forgotten passwords to the occasional email in which a student put their entire written assignment in the subject line.

“Little things like that, that we as adults know we’re supposed to know, we take for granted,” Dickerson said. “Well, kids haven’t figured that out yet, so we have to teach them.”

Similar lessons were being reinforced at Ernst Conservation Seeds, where horticulturalist Mark Fiely led three teachers through a tightly packed schedule that saw them climb inside one of the seed company’s largest combines, travel to pollinator-friendly meadows in Pittsburgh that were planted with Ernst seeds, and get an overview of the seed-production process.

For Fiely, a high point of the visit came when one of the teachers, having seen much of the Ernst facility, commented, “Everyone looks happy.”

It’s the kind of moment that hopefully sticks with teachers when they return to the classroom and the kind of possibility that made Fiely think to himself when Ernst was offered the chance to participate, “This is important.”

Much of the importance comes from what he described as a “knitting of community.” By exposing teachers to businesses they are likely unfamiliar with and by exposing local employers to the people preparing the future workforce, the program increases the likelihood that people on both sides of the equation will be better equipped to help themselves, each other and students.

“By hosting teachers in the workplace for multiple days, companies like Ernst can provide direct insight into what they do and how they do it,” Fiely said in an email. “They can then share these insights with students to assist them as they discern their career path.”

With more than 500 high school graduates in the area each year, those paths will be varied, as were the workplaces visited by teachers this week — florists, credit unions, government offices, tourism and police agencies, aerospace manufacturing among them.

The notion that students may soon be working for some of these employers isn’t an abstract one at all, as the 10-foot-tall “Now Hiring” banner waving in the wind outside MFG Tray demonstrated. The employers who hosted teachers this week were optimistic that the teachers would be better equipped to send well-prepared students their way. The stereotype of academics disconnected from the real world did not apply to this group of educators, according to MFG staff members.

“They seem to be very willing to jump right in and get their hands dirty,” Manufacturing Manager John Kremm said.

The teachers’ interest in getting involved was a means to an even more important end, according to Cole.

“One thing that really impressed me,” she said, “is that they really showed a desire for their students to be successful.”

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