Teaching Teachers to Teach ‘Work’

Pam Sornson, JD

Pam Sornson, JD

Many academics get into the teaching field because they have a passion for a particular subject or concern, and they want to share what they know with eager learners. However, many don’t anticipate teaching both the theory and the technical aspects of their field of study, leaving the nuts-and-bolts elements of the topic up to industry practitioners. In the case of many community college instructors, that presumption is changing as those schools shift their focus to developing a workforce in addition to facilitating an academic foundation. When that happens, and community college teachers are asked to include technical elements in their materials and practices, they often look to other educational professionals to help them optimize that process. In many cases, they find those professionals at the National Council for Workforce Education (NCWE). 


A Nexus Between School and Work

Too often, traditional educational programs provide insights into the ‘why’s’ of a subject matter, but not so much the ‘how to’s.’ The hands-on training needed to implement the learning in the real-world falls to businesses and industries. At the same time, those businesses and enterprises struggle to facilitate hands-on training that matches or makes the best use of theoretical teachings. It often happens that the ‘education element’ doesn’t provide the foundation needed for the ‘hands-on element,’ which compels companies to add those resources into their training, too.

The purpose of the NCWE is to bridge this gap – to facilitate the connection between the theory behind the work and the teaching of the actual work so that students take both elements together into their new jobs and careers. It teaches community college teachers how to knit together both theory and practice into a single program, so students acquire both knowledge forms simultaneously. 


A Myriad of Challenges

The concept of ‘teaching teachers to teach work’ is relatively new, so much of the work being done these days focuses on developing the necessary partnerships between schools and businesses/industries. Each side of the equation must address several concerns before a true partnership can emerge:

From the School’s Perspective:

Overcoming Institutional Inertia

Today’s community colleges are an accumulation of traditional practices, attitudes, and standardized goals, many of which haven’t been reviewed in years. Without the research and data needed to reveal those standard’s actual value to their students, many such schools are content to continue in their well-settled ways. Changing those attitudes takes time and work, and often scads of data are needed to justify the transformation. 

Redirecting Resources

Those institutions have also already invested millions of dollars into their programs and the resources – including the teaching staff – that accompany those courses. They are, reasonably, hesitant to shelve those assets in favor of newer, more relevant options. 

Working with New Partners

After years in academia, it may be daunting to some educators to suddenly have to partner up with a business person whose attention is decidedly not focused on the theory of the subject matter. Developing new collaboration and cooperation skills is another aspect of the new form of teaching that can be unsettling for a theoretician. 


From the Business’s Perspective

Extracting Practice from Theory

Unlike the educator, the business person has a narrower focus for the workforce: know the job and get it done. In many cases, the underlying theory behind the work is only peripherally meaningful on the work floor. Companies that willingly engage with schools in job skills training must collaborate with the educators to ensure that course materials align with workplace demands.

Defining Needs

Another challenge for the employer is to define precisely what skills and abilities are needed and determine the teachable elements required to ensure that students learn those skills appropriately. In many cases these days, those skills involve using advanced technologies, which may not be in the curricula offered by the teacher. This situation may require further collaboration to determine who will provide that training and to find funding for the project.

Proving Effectiveness

Obviously, the best ‘teachers’ are the hands-on training and experience gleaned in the shop. It’s only when the student actually performs the work that needs doing can the collaboration declare success. Businesses can help teachers teach to effectiveness by being clear about expected results. 

The NCWE offers specialized training opportunities for teachers who want to provide their students with the jobs, theories, and skills they’ll need to succeed. 


Coordinating Cultural Shifts, Too

Another high attribute of the NCWE is its attention to diversity and equity concerns. The agency specifies “justice’ as one of its core competencies and supports the work of all educators to find and share resources with all their students inclusively. The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed significant gaps in how learners can or can’t access educational resources; the NCWE is working with schools across the country to devise ways to bridge these gaps and ensure that all students gain access to the education of their choice.  

One of these equity initiatives is the “Building Community Partnerships to Serve Immigrant Workers” (BCPIW) initiative launched in 2015 by its Executive Director Darlene G. Miller. This project facilitated collaborations between community colleges, local worker centers, and community-based organizations to provide much-needed services and supports for the immigrant worker populations. Pasadena City College was one of many schools around the nation that participated. There, the BPCIW team was able to clarify the types of training needed by the region’s immigrant community, streamline the transition of learners from English-as-a-second-language (ESL) studies to other workforce education programs, and develop pre-apprentice programs for day laborers.  

You can hear Director Miller discuss equity and more on our podcast. She was a welcome participant at PCC’s “Future of Work” conference in November 2020. 


With its mission of helping community college instructors promote workforce education and student success in an inclusive way, the NCWE impacts the future occupations and careers of thousands of community college students across the country.  



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