The Research Triangle Park

Corporate mentors help teachers prepare students for today’s workplace

By Apr 12, 2016

Teachers don’t get out much.
As a group, they’re some of the hardest working people out there. They manage classrooms full of energetic kids day in and day out, teaching ever-changing course curricula, giving feedback and grades and advice, all while trying to keep parents, administrators, and politicians satisfied. So when exactly are they supposed to find the time to explore the world they’re preparing their students for?

With help from a cadre of corporate partners, US2020 is working to create that time and opportunity. Through a new pilot program, US2020 matched East Cary Middle School teachers to corporate mentors to explore the work world students will soon enter as well as the ways in which the modern workplace can inspire innovation in the classroom.

On a recent Friday afternoon, about 70 ECMS teachers used teacher work time to visit a dozen companies around the Triangle. They toured labs and offices, chatted with engineers and designers, and brainstormed ways they could incorporate business principles and new technologies in the classroom. In the coming months, teachers will work with their corporate mentors to design a classroom activity or field trip for students.

But first, teachers reveled in the perks of the business world for a day, thanks to businesses that provided lunch and the sorts of gifts that business folks take for granted. “Woo-hoo!” exclaims one teacher as she spots pencils and notepads laid out for the meeting on a conference table at Red Hat. “You want to make a teacher happy? Give her a free pencil!”

Teachers don’t take anything for granted.
“My whole world is about school,” says Katherine Atkinson, a math teacher, during introductions between teachers and mentors at Red Hat. “It’s hard for me to imagine what you do on a day-to-day basis. That’s why this is so great. Any way that I can give my students a vision for their future is going to help me, and them.”

Just touring the Red Hat building in downtown Raleigh was a learning experience. A walk around a floor of cubicles prompted discussion of how employees collaborate constantly, and how the space’s design — featuring low cubicle walls, open lounging spaces, and game rooms — facilitates that collaboration. A walk past a room of servers prompted discussion of how rapidly technology is changing, and how teachers want to incorporate more technology in the classroom but are limited by low bandwidth. “We need speed; we need fiber,” one teacher laments.

During a discussion about how Red Hat develops software, an engineer explained the concept of agile development, by which new software is internally viewed and demonstrated in multiple states of completeness so that people can provide feedback to engineers and engineers can address users’ needs in the next iteration of the product before it goes out to actual customers. “Is that something you can use in the classroom?” asks Steve Huels, a program manager in engineering. “The idea is that you don’t have to be done with the whole project, but you should be able to present it at midpoints, see what the response is, and adjust to focus your work on the highest priorities.”

It’s exactly the sort of discussion US2020 Outreach Project Director Brett Brenton envisioned when he dreamt up the mentor match program. “Being a former educator, I definitely have a bias,” he says. “It’s not just that the teachers need more resources, but they need a more rich experience that can filter right back to the students they serve.

“This program lets them communicate and collaborate with different people than they normally do, to see an organization that does things completely differently,” he adds. “It gets them thinking outside the box of the classroom. And in the end, they’re better able to answer the eternal question that students ask: Why do I need to know this? The more teachers understand the world they’re trying to train students for, the better the odds that they will successfully do that on a daily basis.”

Teachers can’t do it all on their own.
But it doesn’t take a lot of time or money for businesses to provide meaningful assistance, Brenton says. Teachers are eager for any and every opportunity to perfect their teaching and help their students prepare for successful lives and careers.

“Especially in North Carolina, where a lot of need exists around enhancing instruction, these partnerships are critical,” Brenton says. “We want to expand this program to as many teachers as we can. The need for business participation is huge.” 

For the employees, the mentoring opportunity is both personally rewarding and professionally beneficial. Many saw that first day’s conversations as a way to help teachers understand the skillsets that businesses look for when they hire entry-level employees.

“I’m so excited about this,” said Eileen O’Riordan, a senior manager in IT at Red Hat who has volunteered with East Cary Middle School on several occasions and sees the work as a way to meet her company’s hiring needs down the road. “We see a big gap between people who are technically competent and people who can communicate effectively. Our business needs people who can do both. The more we can connect to teachers and students to help them develop the skills they need to work for companies like us, the better.”

While talking with teachers, the team at Red Hat also emphasized that students need to be able to think critically, to sift the ‘noise’ from the substance as they research subjects, and to work in teams. An ESL teacher was pleased to hear that bilingual applicants who have a deep understanding of other cultures are in particularly high demand among businesses that increasingly serve global customers. “I want to do anything I can do to give them ideas of the advantages they have because they are bilingual,” says John Laing, who teaches language and communications and says one of the hardest parts of his job is keeping ESL kids from “feeling like they have nowhere to go.”

While understanding technology is important for prospective employees, even more important is a passion for learning and curiosity. “We look for people who tinker,” said Jesus Rodriguez, a software engineer. “I want to know what someone’s passion is, what they do in their free time — much more than what classes they’ve taken.” 

The discussions seemed to leave teachers swimming in ideas. Whether they learned about software they can use to develop project-based learning opportunities at SAS; speakers they can bring into the classroom from the Environmental Protection Agency; job shadowing programs at UL Laboratories for students; or how John Deere approaches the creative process, all seemed inspired by the chance to think differently and get ‘out of the box’ of the classroom.

“It was inspiring,” one teacher wrote in a summary of the day, “and [it] reinforced how important collaboration and work environment is to generating workable and fresh ideas.”

Click here to learn more about how US2020 is expanding learning opportunities for North Carolina students and teachers. Click here to see how your business can help.

A huge thank you to US2020’s generous partners:
Duke Energy, John Deere, LORD, Monsanto, North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, Precision Lenders, Research Triangle Foundation, Red Hat, SAS, Schneider Electric, UL Laboratories, U.S. EPA