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The Value of Experience

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Some people have concerns about covering tuition and living expenses while working at an unpaid job; other people are simply frightened of facing students in a real world situation. Try to get past these negative feelings. Student teaching can offer you a wide range of learning opportunities. The way you make use of this experience can help you find the job you want. When you are student teaching, be sure to ask the best teachers in your area if you can borrow and use lessons, unit plans, teaching strategies, and activities that they have developed. You may be able to adapt them for use later in your teaching career. Be sure to talk about situations and professional issues that concern you. Ask other professionals how they would deal with these concerns. The nine to eighteen weeks that you spend at that school can give you invaluable insights into your profession. If your student teaching experience offers the opportunity for committee work or coaching, be sure to take advantage of it. All of these activities will give you the opportunity to network with other professionals, establish a track record, and generate letters of recommendation from people who have actually seen you work. As you begin the process of applying for jobs, those recommendations will be extremely valuable to you.

Student teaching is unique to teachers in primary and secondary school, but anyone who wants to work in technical education will need to look for opportunities to get the kind of volunteer or work experience that builds a powerful resume.

One question dominates the whole process of finding a position in special education: "Why should we hire you instead of some-body else?"

Sometimes the question is asked out loud, sometimes it lingers in the air, sometimes it's only hinted at, but every successful applicant must be able to answer that question whether it's asked or not. And there is usually only one correct answer: "You should hire me because I have a proven track record of achievement in this field."

And the successful applicant must be able to cite specific accomplishments and experiences to back up that claim. The only way that young college graduates can obtain this experience is to make careful use of summer work, internships, and volunteer work.


Summer work in business or industry can offer excellent opportunities to work in the field and to learn the language, attitudes, and corporate culture of the business. Summer work can also provide an opportunity to develop the kinds of interpersonal skills that you will need in your career. The best opportunities will allow you to use technology and to work with other people. Be sure to use this time to observe the ways in which other professionals work. Be sure to make note of ideas, strategies, and techniques that seem to be very effective.

If your work setting is fairly informal, you may be able to use your summer work as an opportunity to network with other professionals in your area. Every workplace has its own, often unwritten, rules about communication between permanent and temporary staff, but if you can find a professional who is willing to talk about serious issues in this field, you can network and learn a great deal at the same time.

At the end of your summer job, be sure to ask someone you respect to write you a letter of recommendation. Every letter of recommendation that you acquire helps to document your growth as a professional.

Internships are another way to gain valuable experience. Many students are reluctant to consider volunteering for an internship because they feel pressed by course loads or by the need to hold down a part-time job. However, a carefully selected internship can yield many benefits. Certainly the most tangible benefit is that any-one who reads your resume will know that you are committed to your career, and that you have the kind of self-discipline that allows you to trade free time for experience that will help you later in your career.

Another important benefit of internships is that you can choose the kind of experience that will help you the most. If you volunteer consistently, you can develop a network of professionals who can recommend you based on their observation of your performance. If you decide to volunteer for an internship, think about the kind of experience that you need to grow as a professional. Once you decide on the kind of experience that will help you, take a look at your schedule. You will need a short block of time that you can donate on a regular basis for a semester or for a school year. Once you know what you want to do and how much time you can give, check with your college placement office to see what opportunities exist. Since many companies use web sites to disseminate information, it would be wise to search the Internet to see if a company that you are interested in has a home page. Information on internships might be posted there. Another option is to contact the school or business that you are interested in and ask for the opportunity to volunteer.

Personnel directors are sometimes hesitant to accept volunteers. Confidentiality and liability are important considerations, and there is always the concern that volunteers may fail to follow through after they have been oriented and trained by the paid staff. In these cases, volunteers can actually be a drain on the organization's resources. You can allay a lot of these concerns by the way that you approach personnel directors. In general, you need to follow the same procedures that you used to select the school or facility for your student teaching or clinical experience. Select an organization. Find out the personnel director's or principal's name. Double check the spelling and address. Write a short letter that explains why you are interested in technology, what you are willing to do, how much time you can give, and how long you can continue to volunteer. Use a sentence or two to explain why you need a volunteer experience to enhance your own education. The administrator needs to know that you are volunteering because you want to be there, not because you have been sentenced to community service. Your letter might look something like the letter on the next page.

This is an excellent opportunity to create a network of professional people whom you can turn to for advice, or who can provide valuable information about career opportunities. Before your volunteer experience ends, ask for a letter of recommendation from your supervisor or from someone with whom you have worked. Such a recommendation carries a great deal of weight and will help establish you as a competent, serious professional.
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