01/30/2013 09:29 am ET Updated Apr 01, 2013

When Real Life and Classroom Theory Collide -- You're Ready for Work

In my last post I wrote about how optimistic I was about food jobs in Vermont. I have had some feedback and some time to reflect. For the last eight years I have both taught and managed students at our school farm and in the classroom. For most professor types operational responsibilities are a burden. I have found my operational responsibilities critical to my teaching and, most importantly, critical to my students success.

Imagine running a classroom where you are responsible for the discharge of a reasonable quantity of facts. Then imagine having to take those same students and apply those facts in a profitable way. Here is the discovery: Invariably, the student with the best grades is not the best farmer. The student who gets the classroom theory but prefers to spend time applying it at the farm is always a superior hire. There is something about applying facts "live," with consequences, that makes those facts really sticky in the mind. I teach the hormonal cascade that occurs when a cow is calving, over and over again. It's on two quizzes and one final every year. No one knows it right at the moment we need it, standing next to a calving cow. However, if they've approached a calving cow with me before, and heard the same tired spiel, they know it cold. The brain works better with blood flowing to it. To use a database term, the sights, sounds, feel and smells (lots of smells) are "tags" that get filed away with the knowledge about the hormonal cascade. Once they've lived the lesson, they have it for life.

Mark my words; we won't all be going to school via a computer. The flat screen in front of you is too one dimensional to make information sticky. That said, if you can log in and get the lesson at the same time you are facing the work problem, (dehorning, physical exam, breeding, etc.) it can be very powerful. The key is connection to action. My daughter is headed to college next year. I can tell you that what I am shopping for is human interaction, not cyber connectivity.

Vermont Technical College, where I teach, attracts students who don't particularly enjoy the traditional classroom setting, but learn best by doing. Architectural students design and build environmentally efficient homes; engineering students build custom-made equipment for local businesses; agricultural students decide which animals to milk and keep. We link the profession with the work in the classroom and they thrive. As I wrote in the last post, I have seven to eight job offers for every one of my graduates -- a testament to their readiness to thrive in a true work environment.

I recently bought cows of my own and hired a great group of students to take care of them. I profit-share a little bit with them. As far as students go, the four that I hired will be my "masterpieces," the most competent and valuable I will have ever graduated. As I watch them get excited about making the big scary decisions with me, I wonder if this isn't the way school should be all day. I can't motivate them nearly as well in the classroom as I can when I say "we will lose money" in the barn.

Hopefully, more will learn, get excited about connecting work and the classroom, and eventually re-invent education for everybody's benefit. Let's get to work.