Encouraging students, from a young age, to think about their interests, dreams and goals lets them see possibilities for the future. As students listen to their thoughts and put those thoughts into action, they take ownership of their academic and social-emotional growth and become architects of their own success.
Here are three components that help nurture that process.
Exploration. Helping students begin thinking about their future starts in elementary school. In our district, we use interactive lessons to nurture the career exploration process.
Many students don’t realize the breadth of career paths available, and may be drawn to something they’ve seen on TV or traditional careers such as doctor, lawyer or police officer. These are certainly fantastic careers but it’s important that students understand the wider spectrum and different roles they can pursue and how their interests and strengths align. A dose of reality can help students in making some very important decisions.
Every school year, we partner with our district’s Career and Technical Education department to conduct a peer-to-peer career fair for our fourth and fifth graders. This project lets students research a career and present it to their peers and younger students.
We begin the exploration process by having students discuss their favorite school subjects, and their passions outside of the classroom. When students have a good idea of where their interests lie, we use Xello, a K-12 future readiness platform designed for young learners, to see what careers match. Students can read about careers that they may have never heard of before and understand the importance of what they are learning in school. After students have a career in mind, they present their findings to first, second and third grade students — a great way to solidify what they’ve learned.
Self-reflection. In Texas, middle schoolers are required to pick an endorsement for high school, which makes tapping into student interests all the more important. In the counseling department, we try to help students choose high school electives based on what their endorsements are — but this isn’t possible if a student hasn’t reflected on their interests.
The career fair for elementary students sparks the reflection process, and it continues throughout middle school. Our eighth-grade students need to have an idea of what they want to do, and we use Xello’s Career Matchmaker & Personality styles assessment to help them discover some possibilities.
When students begin reflecting about a career, they often ask questions like “How much money will I make?” My answer is always the same: Try not to limit yourself based on how much money you think you want to make. I tell students that they should not choose a career on the basis of compensation alone, but also by the satisfaction it brings.
Ownership. Once we get to high school, it’s the final countdown. Conversations transition from what a student is interested in, to what their plan is. Every student should be able to tell me what their plan is: Are they going to a four-year school? Straight into the workforce? Military? It’s time for them to take ownership and control of their future.
I’d encourage other educators to avoid the ‘micromanage’ mindset. Give students full access to post-secondary information and tasks, and have them own and execute it. We must resist taking accountability away from the student.
The ability to problem-solve, think critically and to absorb information are fundamental to a well-rounded education. The purpose of school isn’t just to learn, but to prepare students to be productive members of society.
The classroom isn’t exclusively an environment for pushing content; it’s where students connect curriculum to life outside of school. Students need the why of why to come to school each day. Educators must tap into why we are here, and what’s the point of school. Encouraging students to think about the future and realize how a class relates to life outside the classroom is imperative. Let’s embrace teaching students about the purpose of what they are learning, and the ability to own their learning, and their future.
Dana Jackson is executive director of counseling at Grand Prairie Independent School District in Texas.
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