This feature first appeared in the Winter 2021 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.
While working at TestOut, I have had the honor to work with information technology (IT) high school teachers for more than a decade. These teachers are like no one else I have ever met. Each classroom I have observed has its own unique combination of set-up, equipment, funding, opportunities, activities, clubs, skill level, and more. The one thing that is consistent is the dedication and passion that the teacher has for his or her students to succeed.
I was able to visit a magnet school in Missouri, where students from several schools and districts are fed into the same campus. Some students attend for an hour each day, others for three or four hours. This school has one of the best CyberPatriot clubs in the nation. During the day, they offer five or six different classes to teach students about computers, security, networking and more.
After the regular classroom hours are over, the dedicated teachers at this Missouri school stay on campus to work with students and grow their talents, tirelessly preparing them to compete in — and win — national competitions. These teachers see the boundless potential in their students and are willing to do whatever is needed to help them succeed.
While visiting another teacher in Missouri, I noticed that he kept a picture in his classroom of five horses at a trough while one horse grazed in the background. He likened his teaching to trying to get students the 'water' they need to succeed in the workforce. 'I do whatever I can to get the students to drink,' he said, 'but they have to be willing to partake.' He worked every day to help his students drink deeply.
In Utah, I visited a school that didn't have enough computer skills students to fill one class. To meet the needs of the students they did have, the school combined with two other high schools in its district and created a virtual class.
All of these teachers have the same goal. The want to help students acquire knowledge and skills that have direct application in the modern global workforce. One important tool that many of them use in this ongoing mission is IT certifications. Getting a certification is a great way for students to learn valuable skills — but perhaps even more importantly, it's a critically significant asset to any job search.
The world of certification
Education advocacy foundation ExcelinEd has written that, in addition to teaching them complex IT concepts, acquiring an industry certification helps students master essential skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, and prioritizing information. It also serves as a signal to employers and colleges that a student has 'grit,' as anyone familiar with the CompTIA A+ exam, or other rigorous IT certification exams, could tell you.
As HuffPost writer Karl Kovacs put it, 'Achieving an industry-recognized certification is valuable in every profession. A certification (piece of paper) can be your ticket to a dream job, is usually a minimum requirement for a career in IT, and leads you down a life-long path of learning.'
I often tell the teachers I work with that a certification exam is simply a professional litmus test that reveals whether an individual has certain skills. It's a signal to the employers and workers in a given industry that the certification holder can perform professionally at a level adequate to accomplish various tasks and fill certain responsibilities.
Many industries have certifications that are requirements for jobs. These could include, but are not limited to, healthcare, cosmetology, mechanics, culinary arts, business, accounting, finance, law, welding, plumbing, and many more. Information technology is just another professional competency being tested — the one with which I and the teachers I meet are most familiar.
Degree of difficulty
Because industry certifications are used to help potential employers judge what job applicants can do, certification exams are not easy. They will stretch your students to ensure that they are proficient in the knowledge needed to do a potential job. The exams can be tricky and are often designed to fail the student. Passing an IT certification exam requires dedication, practice, and many hours outside the classroom of additional studying.
Students will often encounter additional obstacles when passing a certification is the goal. Certification exams are expensive: They cost of a voucher for even an entry-level certification exam can range between $150 and $500. This can be discouraging for a high school student. Some schools will help pay for these exam vouchers while others won't.
I remember talking to one teacher who sells candy bars and soda in the classroom and uses all the money raised to pay for exams. Another teacher I know holds a car wash to help students raise money for exam fees. Some schools have few other options but to rely on students and parents to pay for exam fees however they can.
Another challenge for many students is a sort of 'peer discouragement.' Sometimes students will see classmates prepare hard for an exam, but then not pass it. This can be demoralizing, especially if a student thinks that these peers are more capable or better prepared than he or she is. If a 'smart' student can't pass the exam, or doesn't prepare well and fails, then others may feel they don't stand a chance.
Students need to know from the start that certification exams are difficult. I had one teacher tell me that he tells his students that failing a certification test is just part of the process. It happens. He usually gives each student the same pitch:
'Read each question twice. The first time, look for what is being asked. The second time, look for what words impact the question. Before looking at the answer choices, they should know what the answer is. However, I tell them to read all the choices because there may be a better choice than their answer.
'Finally, I remind students not to second-guess themselves. They should answer each question as they go through. If they aren't sure, they can mark them, but don't change the answers unless they are positive.'
Certification leads to opportunity
In Texas, I talked to a teacher who taught both computer maintenance and networking. He told me that the majority of students he teaches won't attend college. They will be required to get a job — any job — to help pay their parents pay household bills. He said most of them would follow in the footsteps of parents, siblings, and friends by becoming mechanics, hairdressers, fast food workers, or take other minimum wage jobs and live at or under the poverty line.
Many of the students didn't know it was even possible to do or be something different. They lacked confidence, especially in themselves. That teacher told me his primary goal was to show his students that there is a whole world outside of what they see in their homes — and that entering that world is achievable.
This is where certification can be a game changer. Getting an IT certification could mean the difference between minimum wage and a stable self-sustaining income. With a certification, students can still contribute to household expenses, while also enjoying access to numerous additional pathways — leading to a better education, better housing, better healthcare, and more.
I know of an 18-year-old student who graduated with eight different IT certifications and a job offer at the school district making more than $40,000 per year. I know another who, five years after graduating high school and without attending college, parlayed certification in a $100,000 annual income. Ten years after that, he was making more than $300,000.
Each person has different gifts, and that level of success may not be the most common outcome of getting a certification. A six-figure salary, on the other hand, is absolutely within the grasp of anyone with strong skills and a professional certification. Both of the students I just mentioned came from low-income, low-opportunity communities. They just needed someone to believe in them and help them see a different path.
Any student can do this
When I meet teachers for the first time, or talk to teachers who have just started teaching IT skills courses, they are often extremely skeptical that their high school students would be able to pass professional certification exams. I understand that hesitation.
And I am here to tell you THEY CAN!!! I see it every single year! And the numbers keep going up. Teachers, please believe in your students. Tell them you believe in them. Students need to know that they have the intelligence and resourcefulness needed to pass a certification exam. They need to know that someone else believes they can do it.
Here are a few of the suggestions and incentives that high school teachers I know have used to help motivate their students:
Remind students that certifications are essential if they want to get IT jobs straight out of high school. Even if they decide later on not to stick with IT as a profession, those certifications will still be evidence to potential employers in other fields of determination, persistence, and ability.
Students who pass certification exams often qualify for articulated college credit or other forms of college credit. Be sure that students know about any opportunities to advance or enhance their higher education opportunities through certification.
Ask district and school administration officials to help purchase certification exam vouchers for your students. Even if the school can't cover the entire cost of an exam, every nickel helps. I know of one school that will pay half the cost of the voucher if the student passes the exam. That approach incentivizes both the student (who is more motivated to pass the exam) and the school (which only has to pay for positive results).
Have your school become a certification testing partner. Suddenly nobody has to pay for transportation to a testing center, and you've instantly taken care of any requirements for ID or parental supervision of minors on exam day.
Use your classroom to congratulate and celebrate students who successfully pass a certification exam. Make it a BIG DEAL for anyone who passes — because it is! Recognize their accomplishment, brag about them to their peers, to Parent Teacher Clubs (or associations), and to other teachers. Hang up a copy of their certificate in the classroom.
Every TestOut IT course includes a TestOut Pro certification in the cost of the course. If you use TestOut, then have your students get their Pro certifications before taking the equivalent CompTIA, Cisco, Microsoft, or other exams. This will provide the confidence of passing one exam, while adding another professional credential to their résumé.
Success breeds confidence
As you start succeeding at getting students to take their certification exams, others will make the leap. I had a teacher tell me that one year she had 13 of 16 seniors get at least one certification. At least half of those students got more than one. Students who work together encourage each other and push each other to achieve success.
Not every student will be passionate about IT, or will have the drive necessary to prepare for a professional certification exam. But many of the kids who have signed up for your classes are already passionate, and already driven. You just need to channel that energy.
Work with your students, provide encouragement, and remind them again and again that you believe in them. Help them dig deep when they get discouraged. Help them understand that many, if not most, of the best things in life can only be achieved through hard work — but those rewards, in the end, are worth rising above every challenge.
And hey, teachers: If you would like to meet other instructors who are also preparing high school students for certifications then please join TestOut's Facebook group for IT educators: https://bit.ly/TestOutFacebookCommunity.