The COVID-19 pandemic has shone a spotlight on healthcare workers as real-life superheroes, and that essential role includes nurses and other doctors who have gone from caring for patients to teaching the next generation of professionals.
Career-focused health care programs are popular among students at all New Jersey County vocational and technical high schools. These programs are relevant and effective because they are taught by experienced healthcare professionals who inspire their students by sharing the expertise and experiences they have gained in the field. Across the state, many healthcare heroes have taken on new roles as teaching superstars.
Hunterdon County Vocational School District named Lana Shanahan, a registered nurse who served as a health science teacher/pre-nurse, as Teacher of the Year. The students of the Hunterdon County Polytech Career & Technical High School recognized the passion and knowledge Shanahan brought to their class.
CTE Influencing Teachers
While all career and technical education teachers play a vital role in helping to shape students’ futures in careers ranging from automotive technology to welding, nurses, therapists and other healthcare professionals who teach in health career programs at county vocational and technical schools inspire and influence the next generation of compassionate and skilled caregivers.
“Sometimes I feel like I can almost be a nurse just because of her stories and the lessons she taught us,” student Anna Murray said.
Shanahan also helped students and staff navigate the pandemic with what colleagues described as “professionalism and kindness.”
Diane Carey teaches in a four-year program at Bergen County Technical High School, Paramus, called health professions. As its name suggests, the program takes a broad look at the health care field to present students with a range of career options and, as Carey explained, “leaves pathways open to students based on their interests and abilities.
Carey is just the person to run this program. A registered nurse, she began her career in palliative and home care and also worked in pediatrics. She then attended Rutgers–Newark Law and later worked for a medical malpractice firm, then in-house for a client. She moved into hospital administration in legal risk management and patient safety, and taught at post-secondary institutions before starting full-time as a high school career and technical education teacher.
This position at Bergen County Tech is a perfect fit; this allows her to share her range of professional experiences with students who are in the early stages of planning their own future.
“Careers in health care can be daunting; you encounter life and death situations and you deal with people in serious and difficult times,” Carey said. “But, if students are empowered and confident, they can take advantage of the rich opportunities for growth in this field. This is why we start students early.
Behind the hospital beds and medical devices in Carey’s classroom is an alumni board that highlights student successes. This is proof that her words and her influence as a teacher had a huge impact.
“The graduates stay in touch; they keep me informed, and it reminds me why I’m here,” she said. “It’s so rewarding.”
Cathy Bienkowski, another registered nurse who made the transition to the classroom, agreed that student successes are the greatest rewards of hard work. As an instructor for the four-year Academy of Health Sciences at Morris County Vocational School District, she enjoyed seeing students progress through her program and then go “beyond” to tackle the next phase of their academic journey. “Most, but not all, are on programs longer than four years,” she said. But all of them, she noted, “become amazing adults, make good decisions, and become warm professionals.”
The idea of putting nursing skills to work in a classroom was new to Bienkowski.
“I encourage others to explore this option,” she said. “When I was in nursing school, I didn’t know that was a possibility. I will always be a nurse first, but luckily I can teach what I love.
Lauren Nervegna, a registered nurse who teaches ‘Dynamics of Health Care’ at the four-year-old school Union County Academy for Allied Health Sciences, recently completed the “alternative route” to certification as a teacher at the specialized high school from which she graduated. She became aware of the possibility of becoming a career and technical education teacher when she saw a job offer from the academy – her alma mater. Once she was offered the position, she began working toward certification through virtual classes and in-person classes on select Saturdays. She completed this program in two years, teaching concurrently.
“I couldn’t be happier with this career decision; it brought me back to the place that nurtured my own interests in health care,” she said. “Now I can do the same for students.”
It’s not just health care teachers who are in demand. The county’s vocational and technical schools also seek professionals from a variety of technology and business fields who can bring valuable experience and work perspective to classrooms. And that perspective is something students appreciate.
“Our students come to class every day with so many questions,” Nervegna said. “They want to know what it’s like to be a medical professional. They want to learn how to give others positive health care experiences or turn their own negative experiences into positive experiences for others. They are ready to make a difference and we as teachers can help them do so.
Laura Pinkman, another favorite among students in Hunterdon County Polytech’s health sciences program, finds the student interaction very rewarding.
“A career and technical training program like the one I teach allows me to spend time with students, every day, five days a week,” Pinkman said. “We discuss the realities of the professions they are interested in and the skills they will need, from empathy to acceptance, to deal with a diverse and often vulnerable population.
Pinkman, who began her career as an athletic trainer in high school, also enjoys the time she spends with students to help them explore different career paths in healthcare.
“I love being part of their career exploration,” she said. “We develop a strong bond over this two-year program, so they feel comfortable discussing options with me.”
Contact the Hunterdon County Vocational School District at: hcvsd.org or call 908-284-1444.
Join Bergen County Technical High School at: bergen.org or call 201-343-6000.
Contact the Morris County Vocational School District at: mcvts.org or call 973-627-4600.
Join Union County Academy for Allied Health Sciences at: ucvts.tec.nj or call 908-889-8288.