The Middle School Dance

When I talk with people about business-education partnerships, one of the analogies I use is that of the middle school dance. When most people picture that dance, they hear the music playing and see the lights down low; they also see an empty dance floor, with the boys on one side of the gym and the girls on the other, both groups terrified to approach the other. Why? Because the other group is different, and in ways that we don’t even really understand. We have no idea how to talk to them, and it’s scary to try.

That analogy resonates with a lot of educators – and just as much with businesspeople. The feeling that we don’t understand our counterparts, and are not sure how to talk with them, is a huge barrier to creating the kinds of partnerships that both need (and that students need most of all!).

Of course, what we all learned about the opposite sex as we got older is that they’re not these incomprehensible aliens: They might be a little different than us, but they’re just people. You find out what’s important to them by asking, and you build relationships where you find shared interests and priorities.

That’s my advice to the people I talk to: Take a genuine interest in your counterpart, and ask what’s important to them. You’ll be surprised at how much common ground you find, and that common ground will serve as the basis for some great partnerships going forward.

For educators, understand that many employers, especially those that hire middle-skills positions, are facing real challenges in finding qualified employees to replace their retiring Boomers. Focus on their employment needs: Ask about the skills and knowledge they want to see in a qualified applicant, so you can incorporate those into your program. Once they understand the connection between your program and their needs, ask them to get more engaged. Join your advisory board to provide ongoing input, review the curriculum and facilities, and ultimately work with students directly so they get exposure to real-world work environments and real professional expectations.

For employers, understand that CTE educators are held accountable for students’ success by traditional school metrics, but that most judge themselves by how well they have prepared students to succeed in the workplace. Offer to share your expertise wherever they see a need for it, which could include building a profile (skills, knowledge, experiences, etc.) of a successful completer, helping to shape the curriculum to employers’ needs, or again, working with students to provide them with real-world experiences that will prepare them for life after school.

Don’t be afraid to cross the dance floor to make first contact. If you’ll remember back in high school, the first boy and girl to meet in the middle and actually dance were looked at with awe by their less-confident counterparts. Be that leader, and make those partnerships happen for the sake of our young people.

Brett Pawlowski is Executive Vice President of NC3T, the National Center for College and Career Transitions ( NC3T provides planning, coaching, technical assistance and tools to help community-based leadership teams plan and implement their college-career pathway systems and strengthen employer connections with education.

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