Coming full circle with CTE education

I made up my mind at 17 to drop out of school. I had a job at Hardee’s; I had a skateboard to ride; I had wasted enough time in classrooms that seemed so detached from life beyond high school. It was time for me to move on.

That was my plan, like many other kids who don’t see rigid high school classwork contributing to their future. But then my marketing teacher at Muskego High School in Wisconsin, Mary Martin, gave me a reason to stay. In fact, she gave me a lifetime of reasons.

Ms. Martin won the trust of this would-be dropout by embracing my strengths. Where some saw a disengaged teenager, she saw someone eager to be self-sufficient. Instead of pushing me to be more like the other kids, she connected me with the student store and helped with a co-op placement. Suddenly, my marketing class was relevant. And just as suddenly, I understood how school really could prepare me for the world beyond a classroom.

There’s power in meeting students where they are, instead of forcing them into antiquated boxes. That’s as true today as it was when I experienced it. Sensing the progress she made with me, Ms. Martin encouraged me step out of my comfort zone and compete in a DECA competition. For those who don’t know, DECA is a Career and Technical Student Organization (CTSO) that places kids in role-playing scenarios where volunteer judges evaluate their business and marketing skills. Before I knew it, I was on a bus with students I didn’t know, headed to a three-day event to put my marketing skills to the test in a way they had never been before.

The good news is I placed statewide; the even better news is I was hooked for life. I went from the cusp of dropping out to becoming our school’s elected DECA officer.

My experiences are relevant even today, 25 years after I graduated, because they’re far from unique. I went on to become a CTE teacher at Beaverton High School, and watched my own students find the same spark of inspiration in CTE that I did. My classroom was as much a home for would-be marginalized students as it was a place for them to learn. Hundreds of kids registered for DECA with me, making our chapter the largest in the state. I had the privilege of taking them to the same competitions that changed my life years before. We participated in regional leadership opportunities, national competitions, and alternated between a sports marketing conference in Orlando or the New York Fashion and Financial Conference each year.

Earlier this month, my DECA experience came full circle as I served as a volunteer judge for a new class of DECA students at the annual State Career Development Conference at the Jantzen Beach Red Lion. More than 500 students competed in fields like business management, finance, marketing, entrepreneurship, automotive services and much more.

Words cannot express how inspiring it was to see student leaders explain their understanding of the business and marketing industry. As I judged the Marketing Communications Series, I was struck by how many of the ideas I heard rivaled those of my former colleagues in the business community who were in their respective positions for much of their careers. These kids have been bitten by the same CTE bug that bit me. If my experiences are any indication, there is nothing but great things in store for them.