William Shakespeare and Career Readiness

William Shakespeare and Career Readiness

            My sophomore class and I had just started reading Act III Scene 1 of William Shakespeare’s “The Tragedy of Julius Caesar” when Tony in agonized frustration with both Shakespeare’s language and the behavior of the characters called out, “Hey, Mr. Manos, how is reading this going to put money in my pocket?”

I paused, uncertain how to answer.

The seconds that passed felt like minutes as Tony’s classmates murmured to each other, a few even giggling, as they peered at their textbook or studied me. Would my answer satisfy Tony? Did I even have an answer?

Tony’s question was legitimate. Indeed, how can the soothsayer’s warning “Beware the ides of March” or Caesar’s arrogant response literally contribute to a paycheck for Tony? I paused because I wanted to formulate an eloquent response about the benefits of reading Shakespeare’s entertaining although violent play, but Tony simply wanted to discover the concrete connection between Shakespeare’s tragedy written in 1599 and his career plans 400 years later.

“Well, Tony,” I finally responded. “The play, to be sure, isn’t going to put any money in your pocket. No poem or story or play will do that unless you put them in an anthology and then sell the textbook to schools like ours.”

“I don’t want that,” Tony declared. “I want to own my own landscaping business. How is reading this play going to help me with that?”

Another pause. More twittering among his classmates. Once again, I engaged in an internal search for a convincing explanation.

I should have said: “That’s a great question, Tony. Reading about Julius Caesar, although Shakespeare presents him in a fictional way, prompts us to consider those who have authority over us, like an employer or a supervisor. Or if you’re the employer, the kind of individuals you would hire. You certainly want employees who will be loyal, but do you also want them to be ambitious?

“Shakespeare’s language can be challenging, but it makes us examine our own ways of communication both orally and in print. Effective communication skills are very important in any business these days.

“Furthermore, this play has several themes, and analyzing Shakespeare’s main points about loyalty, betrayal, and vengeance can help us in our own business relationships. How often do we hear about companies laying off hundreds of employees or CEOs being fired? Consider Marc Antony in this play. Is he more loyal to Caesar or to Rome? How many employees today show true loyalty to the company president or even the company itself?

“Critical thinking is a key demand from employers. They want employees who can analyze a problem and find solutions readily, much like we are doing with this play as we figure out why Brutus and the other Roman senators feel justified in assassinating Caesar. Are their actions justified or not?

“Also note that we are reading many scenes out loud, prompting students to cooperate to read a scene correctly. Employers want employees who have the ability to collaborate effectively to produce successful projects, much like Brutus and his fellow conspirators collaborate to assassinate Caesar. You are getting all those skills by reading this entertaining play.”

I wish in hindsight I had said all that, but I actually said, “Landscaping? Maybe the play will teach you to hire employees who will be loyal to you and not speak critically of you behind your back.”

Tony slumped in his seat and gazed grudgingly at his text. As we returned to Act III, I made a mental note to prepare a more cogent response for future students who asked a similar question. Indeed, how will any of what I do in the classroom put money in the pockets of my students? How am I actually making my students career ready? Where does my subject matter connect directly to career readiness?

I believe school districts should promote connections between what students are learning in the classrooms and the expectations and demands of the workplace. Teachers must connect their learning activities to the expectations demanded by 21st century employers. Moreover, school curricula should reflect a global approach to career expectations, and as career trends evolve, so should our approach to teaching, for instance, Shakespeare’s plays.

Unfortunately, according to ACT, “far too many U.S. students lack college and career readiness (CCR).” They are graduating from high school both unprepared for college and the workforce.

But what actually is career readiness? Here are some definitions:

From the National PTA: “College and Career Readiness means that a student is prepared to go directly to work or enroll and succeed – without remediation – in a variety of postsecondary institutions so that they are ready to enter a career of their choice.”

From the Career Readiness Partner Council: “A career-ready person effectively navigates pathways that connect education and employment to achieve a fulfilling, financially-secure and successful career . . . To be career ready in our ever-changing global economy requires adaptability and a commitment to lifelong learning, along with mastery of key knowledge, skills and dispositions that vary from one career to another and change over time as a person progresses along a developmental continuum.”

And from Careerreadynow.org:  “A career-ready person is proficient in the core academic subjects, as well as in technical topics. This foundational knowledge base includes competence in a broad range of academic subjects grounded in rigorous internationally- benchmarked state standards—such as the common core state standards for English language arts and mathematics. It also includes a level of technical-skill proficiency aligned to a chosen career field and pathway, and the ability to apply both academic and technical learning in the context of a career.”

In the past, students were deemed career reading if they demonstrated strong skills in two main academic areas: English (reading and writing) and math. In addition, the focus for college and career readiness emerged primarily at the high school level. In short, the higher a student’s GPA or class rank or SAT scores or ACT scores, the more likely he or she was college and career ready.

Clearly, career readiness hinges on a more comprehensive criteria today. Different employers, to be sure, can have different expectations. For instance, the skills needed by a retail clerk certainly differ from those required of a carpenter, but all careers share some common requirements. Although document literacy in reading and numerical literacy in math still remain important, the focus now must include the noncognitive skills, for example, like personality, cooperation, punctuality, and diligence. Teachers can certainly observe these skills in students at any grade level, and thus, they deserve more attention as predictors of career-readiness.

How efficiently and thoroughly students gather information and use technology are also important to career readiness.  According to a study by the Oxford Martin School’s Programme on the Impacts of Future Technology, 45 percent of American jobs are at high risk of being taken by computers within the next two decades. Indeed, future employees will need to be tech savvy and well-traveled in the digital universe.

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