Start Exploration Early
It’s never too early for students to start thinking about their futures. This doesn’t mean heaping pressure onto already over-scheduled kids—just gently lifting their gazes to the horizon from time to time.
Showing students the big picture starting in middle school will make planning for the future feel like a natural part of growth and development. By opening conversations about career paths at an early age, you may catch kids before they’ve been overly influenced by friends, family or the media, allowing them to consider all possibilities. With time to reflect on what they’re good at and passionate about (and how their likes and dislikes have changed over the years), students will begin to see how to chart their own path toward an end goal, rather than plod through school grade by grade. Career planning can become an exciting element of school—a not-so distant shore to swim toward.
By imagining her next steps in high school, Jameela can start to plan how she’ll manage them. But not all students are so forward-thinking. That’s why it’s helpful to encourage reflection and self-knowledge in the classroom. Experiences like quizzes, self-assessments and storyboarding are good tools to help students become self-aware. Reflection requires practice, so it’s ideal to offer semi-regular opportunities for students to check in with themselves to understand what matters to them now and in the future.
It’s also important that they feel safe to express their honest feelings about experiences that could shape their choices, even if they’re negative. You may ask them to consider questions like:
- What subjects do I like?
- What am I passionate about?
- What am I especially good at? What am I not so great at?
- What kind of study or work do I see myself doing in the future?
- What actions can I take to help me prepare for the future?
It can be tricky for educators to make time for self-reflection into the rigors of a school schedule. Modeling self-reflection (see the importance of real-world illustrations below) and incorporating short, simple daily activities are as effective as devoting an entire learning block once in awhile.
Provide Real-Life Examples
Sometimes students just need to see it to believe it. A former eighth-grader who made the transition to high school and lived to tell about it could have a tremendous impact on worried students like Jameela. Consider inviting former students into the classroom to share their (positive) “war stories” as a freshman—and later as a senior. For high school students, a panel of alumnae engaged in different fields of study offer a window into various avenues. You may also set up a tour with a local college so students can see the full trajectory—from high school to college or vocational school to career.
The same real-life principle can be applied to preparing students for transitions into the workforce. Offering students accurate examples of real people doing real work shows students how the knowledge and skills they learn in school translates into the world of work.
Help Build Professional Skills
“Soft” or “professional” skills like diplomacy, problem-solving, communication and time management are increasingly recognized as important markers for success at work and in life. These skills can also have an impact on the way students cope with transitions. Jameela will feel more confident stepping into high school—and, later, college or another pathway—if she has a history of making friends, dealing with challenges and managing her time effectively.
Classroom simulations, explorations and curriculum that present “real world” concerns, such as career backup plans, job interviews, career demand, lifestyle costs and work/life balance will help students understand some of the factors underlying every career choice.
Give a Preview of What’s to Come
It’s clear that Jameela’s anxieties about high school stem from the unknown. While it’s not possible to provide a crystal ball, educators can alleviate some apprehension by sharing what is expected of students in future grades and schools. Consider distributing high school or college reading lists and other course materials to students nervous about academics. Extracurricular clubs that allow students to work ahead and understand the difference between middle school and high school expectations can have academic and emotional benefits.
It’s not long before Jameela is excited for high school. She plans to tackle the reading list for English class this summer. The recent class visit to the museum inspired her to think about a career in ecology. She’s psyched for science class in September. Slamming her locker door, Jameela’s smile returns. She’s ready to take on high school—and the world.