Treating Students Like Adults: One CTE Teacher’s Approach

Posted March 23, 2023

As a high school teacher with a bachelor’s degree in animal science, I thought I’d spend my life teaching agriculture classes and leading a school’s FFA program (formerly known as Future Farmers of America). I never dreamed I’d find myself also teaching shop classes like welding! But when I was hired at McLouth USD 342, my contract included teaching career and technical education courses across two different pathways, including Power, Structural and Technical Systems (or ag power for short).

Sound familiar? Many teachers in small high schools (McLouth High School is a 2A school north of Lawrence) must wear multiple hats. To prepare for my new role, I spent an entire summer planning and networking with employers and CTE colleagues at other schools to make sure I was building a class that would prepare my students for the real world.

I was expecting employers to tell me I needed to teach specific industry skills, but no one ever did. Instead, employers urged me to teach my students key employment skills and behaviors, like how to show up for work on time, have a firm handshake and how important it is to be able to pass a drug screening.

Common Core teachers — those who teach required subjects like math, science, English and social studies — have so much they must teach each year to meet the state standards. I found most of my kids didn’t understand many critical professional and life skills, like how to write a resume or conduct themselves in a job interview. I felt that as a CTE instructor, this was a gap I could address and these were skills I needed to work into my classes.

I designed my welding shop to be like a workplace. Students are expected to come to my class ready to work each day. I have very high expectations, and most of them rise to those expectations.

What draws kids to CTE courses in the first place — whether they’re C students or at the top of their class — is the opportunity to do something hands-on. My two classes each have a capacity of eight students, and last school year, 56 kids wanted to take it. Therefore, I decided to appeal to their sense of competitiveness to require them to earn their right into the shop through an application and interview. I bring in industry representatives, who ask the students a series of basic questions and give them a grade for their responses to help them practice the interview process. Students take the entire experience very seriously, just like applying for a real job.

Before they can step on the shop floor, students must pass a safety test with 100% accuracy. If needed, I let them take the test up to five times to get a perfect score. I’ve only had one student who didn’t pass with 100% after five attempts. I hear from parents and other teachers that students who never study put in the time and effort to pass this test. It’s a great motivator to know you were selected for to get into this class, and other students were not — so they need to work hard and take advantage of the opportunity.

Their grades greatly depend upon how many minutes of work they do each semester. We have a clock-in, clock-out system that teaches students to respect their employer’s time and stay focused on their tasks while on the job. At the beginning of class, they are allowed four minutes to change their clothes and prepare to clock in, and at the end, they get seven minutes to clean up, change for their next class and clock out. I never write passes, so if they can’t plan their time to get these tasks done in the time allotted, they pay the consequence of being tardy. I’m all about real-world consequences.

I’ve also implemented a system of giving each student personal days. If you’re gone, you’re gone — whether that’s for an activity, appointment or illness. I’ve empowered them to have some voice and choice about when they’re working, and when they need to prioritize something else in their lives. They get 10 days a year they can choose not to participate in class. Some of the kids blow through these personal days early in the year and then later kick themselves for their decisions. That’s a great life lesson to learn in my classroom, rather than at their first job.

I appoint one student to be the foreman at all times in my shop at two-week intervals. Serving as a foreman gives students leadership experience and experience in teaching skills to others. It also teaches students to take instructions and follow orders from peers. The foreman can write a student up if they break our shop’s rules. The foreman is incentivized to run an efficient, clean shop — they can earn a bonus personal day if I later determine their crew did a perfect job cleaning up on a particular day.

All in all, I believe these practices help students more easily transition from being a student to an employee – which we shouldn’t assume young people know how to do. My students have responded very favorably to this structure. In fact, my welding class was the second most requested elective in our school last year. I think that says a lot! You treat kids like adults, they will respond in kind.

A graduate of Kansas State University, Nicole Hinrichsen teaches agriculture and CTE courses at McLouth High School and was recently named the Kansas Association for Career and Technical Education Young Teacher of the Year. The ideas shared in this blog were recently entered in the Kansas Association of Agricultural Educators Ideas Unlimited competition. Hinrichsen’s proposal won the state technology division and will advance to a Region II National Association of Agricultural Educators conference this summer. Her program was recently awarded a grant from the Hamm Foundation, which funded improvements and new technology for her shop. Check out the video included with this article to hear more from her students about her shop classes. If you have questions for Ms. Hinrichsen, she can be reached at