Teaching any subject is tough these days. But imagine the effect of remote and hybrid learning on woodworking and other career and technical education (CTE) classes. As industrial arts teacher Tim Zavacki puts it, “You can’t exactly send bandsaws home with kids!”

Here’s how teachers have kept student motivation high and even discovered silver linings as they maneuver within whatever parameters their schools are operating under.

Stepping outside the norm to intrigue and hook students

Fortunately, many CTE teachers already have marketing chops. They’re well-versed in promoting their electives to get new students in the door, which goes hand in hand with positive recommendations from current ones.

Take Chris Davis at Henry Ford II High School in Michigan, whose woodworking class may be the only one to have built paddle boards for two billionaires in less than two years. After he pivoted the program to focus exclusively on action sports three years ago, he saw student interest soar.

Kids could relate to and get excited about designing and building something fun to ride like a skateboard, surfboard, snowboard or paddle board — either for themselves or a star. Last year, an all-girls team built a board for British business magnate Richard Branson.

Image credit: Chris Davis, Henry Ford II High School

For Chef Margaret Foret at Seacoast School of Technology in New Hampshire, elegant four-course dinners complete with linen tablecloths, folded cloth napkins, polished glassware and silverware helped create an environment students didn’t want to leave. Even after working all evening preparing and serving two seatings amounting to 130 covers, students still wanted to hang out, eat all the leftovers and talk.

“I think part of the reason students sign up is because they know they're going to make friends and it's going to be like joining a team, more than just taking another class,” says Foret.

Remote or hybrid: active learning continues

Davis’ woodworking students must study remotely these days. But to keep them from getting bogged down, he’s organized virtual field trips like one to Colorado-based snowboard manufacturer Never Summer. Students are also busy sketching designs for boards they’ll be building for themselves or this year’s high-profile recipients, Spanx founder and CEO Sara Blakely and her husband author/entrepreneur, Jesse Itzler.

“Kids sign up for classes like mine because they want something different than the typical sit in class, take a test routine. So I’m trying to keep it as different as possible,” he explains.

Similarly, Zavacki is varying assignments at his high school in northwest New Jersey to keep students engaged whether they’re working remotely or hybrid. They’ve enjoyed acting the part of a cabinet salesperson explaining all the natural qualities of wood to a customer and doing visual projects like creating an ABC book about wood and woodworking.

The hybrid model brings very small groups into the shop at a time that has admittedly meant more work for Zavacki. Yet it’s also given students the luxury of getting individual instruction whenever they need it along with access to tools and equipment without ever waiting in line. In terms of their level of concentration and motivation, Zavacki reports days when the kids are getting a full week or two worth of work done in a single class hour.

Image credit: Margaret Foret, Seacoast School of Technology

Chef Foret, who has most of her students working onsite, has organized accommodations for those at home. By Friday, she sends out a shopping list along and has “goody” packages of unusual or costly ingredients available for pickup so students can get the ingredients for recipes the class will be cooking the next week.

“Compared to some other disciplines, we’re at an advantage because everyone has to eat!” she admits.

While she doesn’t get to taste what students make at home, Foret has them take a picture of their measured-out ingredients, the finished product and their cleaned-up kitchen. “I don’t want angry parents emailing me that they made a mess then walked away!”

Numbers allow each live student their own cooking station in the school kitchen. Foret sets iPads with remote students connected on the bench next to whomever they want to work with. Students enjoy this setup, turning lessons into TV-style cooking shows for peers at home.

Learning life lessons through shifted ways of working

All three teachers note that they are seeing their students learning lessons that go beyond pure curriculum that will serve them in life.

Whenever his students design and construct a celebrity board, Davis has them explore what might be called the secrets to success that person lives by. Often these nuggets are valuable life lessons seldom taught in school. This year students are focusing on endurance or not giving up when the going gets tough and embracing failure as key to success that the entrepreneurs they’ll be building for embody.

Image credit: Margaret Foret, Seacoast School of Technology

Foret told her students at the beginning of the year that depending on their diligence with sanitary protocol, the group could either set an example or end up an epicenter. So far the students have been stellar in their hygiene and regard for safety, indeed showing a level of leadership and responsibility many adults stand to learn from.

Self-reflection is a tool Zavacki recently introduced to his students. Since they’re only in the shop once a week, he’s having them reflect on how they’ve worked during that time and assess themselves. Now students are like professionals working in their own shops. They’re taking themselves seriously and the quality of their work is phenomenal.

Despite variation in class structure and dynamics from state to state, district to district and even school to school, these teachers share a common commitment to student well-being and engagement. We suspect they’re not alone, so please share below how you motivate your students. We’d love to hear from you!