I Did Not Want My First Job

by Donna Vinton

I didn't want to teach the new career course. More experienced staff were given first choice of courses to teach, however, so as least senior of the three English teachers making up the newly-hired English department, I was assigned the class, like it or not.

When we arrived at the small public high school that first fall together, we were handed what we saw as the most uninspiring English curriculum we had ever seen: English I, English II, English III, and English IV; year-long courses with content that had not been updated in years and offered no choices for students. We decided we needed to change the curriculum and to do so as quickly as possible. We considered student needs from our perspectives, surveyed the students for needs and interests from their perspectives, and began to develop a new curriculum of required and elective semester-long courses. Along with the literature and speech and composition one would expect from high school English classes, we decided that we needed a "practical English" course, something for those students who would be moving into the working world directly after graduation.

The class was called "Accent: Communication and Life" and included lessons on completing application blanks, writing resumes and cover letters, and researching options for career directions and additional training after high school. Teaching that course to high school sophomores and juniors seemed a long way from what I had envisioned myself doing - eventually teaching writing in a college setting. I mean, how creative and thought-provoking could writing a resume be?

But as I read the text selected for the course and researched career decision making and job search resources, I found myself being pulled into the subject. There was so much to know about the field! In addition, with each student representing a different combination of career interests and needs, teaching and coaching required constant creativity in order to select the most effective strategies and resources for the particular case at hand. Best of all, I could see the excitement in my students. Before long, the course that was intended for the non-college bound was a favorite choice among all of the students, college-bound or not. I even began to see writing a resume as a little like writing a sonnet; carefully chosen language in a particular format on the page, creating a central image, in this case of an interesting and capable human being meeting employer requirements for a job.

To learn more about my new field of interest, I took David Jepsen's course on facilitating career development at the University of Iowa. It was a daily summer class that met at 7:45 in the morning, and the university was 65 miles from my home. By the end of the eight-week course I had a thick three-ring notebook of classnotes and resources, a theoretical base for understanding career development, some experience in one-on-one career advising; and a level of fatigue so deep that I probably should not have been on the road driving. But by now, I was really hooked on the field of career development.

That's not to say I was a convert all at once. For example, I resisted John Holland. How could such a "simplistic theory," or so I thought, be helpful in dealing with complicated human behavior and preferences? When computer-assisted career guidance programs appeared, I resisted those as well. Human beings needed human beings to assist them; what could a computer do? Now Holland, Super, Krumboltz, Roe, Tiedemann, Schlossberg, Savickas and other theorists and researchers are so wired into my brain, that I can use them almost without thinking as their work applies to my clients' needs. And computers? Today I wouldn't dream of trying to counsel without having the Internet available to introduce my students to resources that extend far beyond what even a very good collection of printed resources can provide.

I taught the high school career course six years before moving on to another job. The course, now called Career English, is still being taught, over 30 years later. I've provided career development services to adolescents in an alternative high school, helped the unemployed find work through a federal employment and training program, directed a college career service office, taught career development to undergraduate and graduate students in a university, and counseled what by now is hundreds of students, alumni, and adult career changers. Whatever the career development setting or application, I've loved it all.

If you take a look at jobs for English majors in a career guidance system like SIGI Plus or Career Cruising, you'll find career counselor among the titles suggested. If you had shown me that my first year as a high school English teacher, I'd have scoffed at the idea. Now I understand. Using words, ideas, research, resources; writing, speaking, analyzing the behavior of ourselves and others, helping people to grow and develop - those were the things that initially made me choose to be an English teacher. They are also essential parts of being a career counselor, and now I can't imagine doing anything else.

Donna Vinton is Associate Director of Career Development Services at the University of Northern Iowa, where her position is shared between the Career Center and Academic Advising Services. She previously served as Director of Career Planning and Placement at Mount Mercy College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. She has a Ph.D. in Higher Education from the University of Iowa. Contact information:
SSC #125, University of Northern Iowa,
Cedar Falls, IA 50614