Manatee chamber and school district partner for Project TEACH | East County

Stu Henderson received some interesting answers when he asked a class of fourth graders to guess what he did for a living.

Students thought Henderson, the owner and director of design at Fawley Bryant Architecture, was a teacher, a YouTuber, a sports person or an artist.

“Somebody said something to do with art and that’s when I started to engage them on that and said, ‘You’re closer, let’s talk more about that,'” Henderson said.

Henderson went on to explain his job as a part of Project TEACH.

“It was a lot of fun,” Henderson said. “It was a little challenging because people immediately think that if you do architecture, you build the building. So I had to clarify that a little bit and let them know I draw the buildings and we work with great contractors to actually build the buildings.”

Larry Luh, the Manatee County EMS assistant chief of operations, volunteers for Project TEACH at Gene Witt Elementary School. Courtesy photo.

Project TEACH, or Teach Everyone About Career Horizons, is a partnership between the Manatee Chamber of Commerce and the School District of Manatee County that brings business professionals from around the county into fourth grade classrooms to help students explore different career opportunities while also learning about the importance of first impressions.

The Manatee Chamber of Commerce is looking for about 150 volunteers to go into classrooms March 10 for this year’s Project TEACH, which started more than 30 years ago.

Jacki Dezelski, the president of the Manatee Chamber of Commerce, said Project TEACH will reach more than 2,800 fourth graders in 29 elementary schools.

Volunteers represent several industries and occupations from small business owners to bankers to financiers to contractors, law enforcement officials and doctors.

“The goal is for business volunteers to connect with students in the classroom,” Dezelski said. “The curriculum is designed to stress the importance of first impressions as well as help students learn about careers that are located right here in our region.”

Dezelski said some of the benefits of Project TEACH include exposing students to careers they might not be familiar with as well as providing an opportunity for the business community to become more familiar with the School District of Manatee County.

“For many of us, it’s been a long time since we’ve stepped foot in a classroom, much less a fourth-grade classroom,” Dezelski said. “I think it gives a great amount of appreciation and perspective for our business community to be in a classroom, to work side by side with a teacher and to have that experience connecting with students.”

Before heading to the classroom, volunteers will have an orientation breakfast at the Bishop Museum of Science and Nature in Bradenton where they will learn about the curriculum and hands-on activity they’ll be doing with students.

When volunteers first arrive, they’ll ask students questions, such as “how old am I?”, “What kind of car do I drive?” “What is my educational background?” and “What’s my favorite fast food?”

The final question always is “What do I do for a living?”

“My favorite part is hearing the answers to the first impression questions from the students,” Dezelski said. “You have to have a little bit of a thick skin at times because they will have some really funny answers to what they think you do or how old you are.”

Henderson was nervous about going into the classroom at first, but he said the questions helped ease the pressure and helped him engage more with the students.

“This year I won’t be as nervous going in because they’re adorable, they’re smart and they’re funny,” Henderson said. “We have a great time in the classroom. I love seeing the bright eyed kids that are just full of hope and who are looking forward to hearing a little bit about a guest in the classroom.”

After the first impression questions, volunteers will reveal their occupation and explain to students what they do, how they entered that industry and what it took to get where they are now.

“It’s such an important opportunity for the business community to support our public schools as well as help those students envision a career path that’s maybe something they’ve never even heard of before,” Dezelski said.

The class will end with students designing business cards for what they want to be when they grow up. Dezelski said volunteers usually take the time when students are designing business cards to talk to them individually about what they’re thinking about for their future.

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