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Teaching Technology in Proprietary Schools

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Roger Speer is the director of the Glendale Heights Campus of Universal Technical Institute in Glendale Heights, Illinois.

How would you describe a typical day at your job?

One of the reasons that I love this job is that there is no such thing as a typical day. I view this job as a kind of customer service position. I look at the staff members and students in this school as my customers, and I try to provide the kind of leadership the school needs. I am responsible for supervising instruction, staffing, student aid, and job placement at this school. Those are ongoing issues. I am also responsible for working with students and families when students run into trouble here. We never have discipline problems. Normally students who are still with us after the first nine weeks graduate from our school. But there are some students who have trouble adjusting to our program. We are preparing students to take jobs in industry, so we insist on the kind of grooming, punctuality, courtesy, and cooperation that industry demands. Industry operates a drug-free workplace, and so we have developed one of the toughest drug-testing policies of any post secondary school in America. When students have problems in these areas, I get involved. Over 70 percent of our students graduate, but I also work with the students who are on probation for academic failure or for failure due to nonattendance.

I also work with staff members who want to continue their formal education. Our school provides tuition reimbursements to staff members who want to continue their college educations. I also help coordinate professional education for our teachers, so they can keep up with new developments in industry.

One of the things that I enjoy the most is the ability to work with vocational education. Our school has helped develop the electrical and automotive contests for VICA [Vocational Instruction Clubs of America], and we are helping Gage Park High School develop a career academy. We are helping to provide technical assistance, curriculum materials, equipment, and teacher training opportunities for the academy.

I am also very interested in job placement for our students. Our goal is to match student ability with employer expectations. The first job a student gets is absolutely critical in determining the student's success. A bad entry-level experience can turn a student off to the whole field. We work hard to help employers read and evaluate our students' transcripts. Our transcripts have a tremendous amount of information in them: they contain student grades for academic work and labs and information on punctuality, courtesy, dependability, cooperation, intuition, attendance, and safety. Unfortunately, all the information in the world won't help an employer if he or she can't read and evaluate the transcript properly.

What experience or education was most helpful to you in preparing for your career?

I had a lot of experiences that helped me. I joined the Marine Corps right out of high school and became a sergeant. After the military, I worked in the oil fields as a crew chief on a gas rig. When I decided to go to college, I majored in business and entered the airline industry. I specialized in human resources, but when I came to UTI, I was fascinated by the education that was going on here. Kids light up when they get here. Maybe they had algebra in high school, but when they learn algebra in terms of Ohm's law, it makes sense to them. The chance to work with kids who are focused on their goals really appealed to me.

One of the projects that helped me prepare for this job was developing partnership programs with industry. We have partnerships with Firestone, BMW, and many other companies. These partner-ships help us provide state-of-the-art equipment for our students, and they help us provide the kind of training that employers want. There is a kind of synergy here: the more up-to-date equipment, the better opportunities and the more job-specific skills that are developed. That's important for us. Professional technicians face complex challenges. They need critical-thinking skills, problem-solving skills, technical skills, and professional skills. The partnership pro-gram helps us to develop these skills.

What kind of background are you looking for in teachers who want to work with UTI?

We need teachers with a strong professional background. We want people who have done the jobs that they are training students to do. We also look for people who like kids and enjoy working with them. When we find a person who we think has the right background and the right personality, we are willing to invest the time and effort to train him or her. Prospective teachers actually sit in the class with other students and do the same lab work that the students do. We train prospective teachers to use our curriculum, to communicate, and to grade student work. But there are some things that you can't teach. Caring about students is one. Willingness to continue professional education, to keep learning in order to stay current with new developments in industry, is another. Those are qualities that you have to look for in people.

The director of a vocational proprietary school has many of the same responsibilities that a corporate manager and a high school principal have. Vocational school directors describe their major responsibilities as supervision, staffing, recruitment, and job placement.

School directors work with students who have difficulty with academic or discipline problems. The school director acts as a hearing officer for students who wish to appeal a decision made at a lower level. The director also works with the parents of students who are involved in problems at school. In their capacity as managers, school directors must also work with staff members who may be having personal or professional problems. When remediation plans fail, the director may need to make the painful decision to expel a student or to dismiss a staff member.

School directors are also deeply involved in all staffing decisions and usually are required to make the final selection from a pool of candidates that have been screened by the personnel office or by staff committee. The director works with staff to implement school improvement plans based on feedback from students, staff members, employers, and advisory groups. The director coordinates continuing education for teachers who need to learn about new developments in technology.

One of the most important aspects of a vocational school director's job is to coordinate student recruitment and job placement. Since proprietary schools are self-supporting, recruitment of new students is critical. In large measure, recruitment depends on how successful the school is in placing their graduates in jobs. The director supervises recruitment and placement counselors and works to develop partnerships with secondary schools and with industry to attract students and to offer training that will lead to employment.

School directors have a very demanding job. Personnel and student issues can be very time consuming and emotionally draining. Successful school directors thrive on the excitement of working with young people and enjoy the challenges of running a rigorous and economically viable school. Directors tend to work very long hours in meetings and in one-on-one conferences with students and staff. Volunteer work with professional organizations also consumes a great deal of time. Since proprietary schools do not follow a traditional school calendar, school directors cannot look forward to a relatively peaceful summer break.

People who are interested in this field will require a strong back-ground in business and education. A minimum of a bachelor's degree in business is required, and many schools require advanced work in management and in education. Competition for school directorships is very keen, partly because it's a very challenging job, and because the salary reflects those challenges. Vocational school directors earn between $70,000 and $100,000 a year.
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