As a 10th grade English teacher, I realized if I worked with my students to set goals, they were more invested in their studies and they were more engaged in their lessons – which naturally led to a higher level of success. It started as a lesson teaching S.M.A.R.T. goals – Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Results-focused and Time-bound. It grew to a two page student document that included individualized short-term and long-term goals covering personal, social and academic areas, learning styles, results from interest inventories and an assessment history. I wanted my students to set achievable goals and then gradually build on these goals to incorporate their future career aspirations. I wanted my students to have all of the “tools” needed to achieve these goals – answers to questions like “How do I learn best?” “What motivates me?” “What am I passionate about?” “What scores do I need to attend the college I desire?”
Everything was on one document in the front of their binder they could reflect on every day. I met privately with each student so we could complete the document together. It was a great idea. Only one problem – it was too late.
Brittany was the student who sat in the back of the class. She always completed her work but never engaged in conversation, never answered questions aloud, never drew any attention to herself, and never made eye contact. She was a struggling reader. The majority of my students that year were reading between a 4th – 6th grade reading level. When Brittany and I met and we reviewed her data she was interested – but she didn’t speak. It was only the two of us at a table and no other students were within earshot. I struggled - how can I engage her? I asked her one of the questions on the form: What are you passionate about? She stared at me. I shared my passions – teaching, reading, cooking, gardening - in hopes of opening the door for her. Finally she said “I don’t think I have any.” I continued on with the questions. “What type of career do you want?” Again - no response.
I asked her, “Brittany, has anyone ever asked you what you wanted to do? What you like to do?” Tears fell down her face as she whispered her response, ”No, never.” During our work to complete her goals she eventually shared with me that she had no encouragement at home, she took care of her younger siblings, no one in her family graduated high school and the only goal she had ever had was to graduate high school. I wish I could say that after this meeting she blossomed and eventually left high school to pursue a productive career. What that meeting did do was grow her confidence in class. Eventually she started to become more engaged, ask questions, and speak up. The fact that I had cared enough to ask established a trust that aided her to leave her safety zone and believe she could achieve.
I don’t know who learned more through this process – me or my students. It shaped my teaching philosophy and helped me adjust my teaching style to incorporate career readiness in every aspect of my teaching.
We need to begin early. We need to educate the “whole” student.
We need to expose.
In elementary school we should focus on encouraging and opening avenues of various interests to our students. At this age we should expose students to goals and make a focused effort to connect classroom learning to the real word. We need to scaffold success for our students so they will have the confidence to succeed. Students should be taught they are part of a large world and the responsibilities that come with contributing to mankind.
In the middle school years students should have access to career exposure classes, service-learning, interest and personality inventories, college campus tours, and business and industry tours. We need to make the connection of curriculum to student career goals and aspirations.
When students enter high school, we should continue to build on this foundation by ensuring schedules integrate career goal paths with coursework. Schools should have college and career preparedness programs – for all students. Career preparedness programs should include mentoring through participation in organizations and clubs specifically geared towards interests and career goals. Rigorous classes and projects, including electives, after school and summer tutoring, college campus tours and attendance to college fairs, and career internships should also be provided.
Prior to entering education, I worked in the private sector. So many times prospective employees submitted resumes with typos. They came to interviews in jogging pants or slippers. Basic communication skills required in the workplace were lacking in many applicants. We need to incorporate positive body image, communication skills, confidence building activities, and technical writing. Soft skills should be implemented in all content areas at all grade levels. Students should be able to look someone in the eye when they shake their hand.
It doesn’t begin and end with the specific content we teach. We should keep in mind that we are not just preparing students to enter the next grade level but to enter the workforce and/or college. These skills are life skills – we are molding our students to grow into productive, compassionate, and determined citizens. Part of educating the entire student involves helping to create awareness in them that they are part of a larger group – teaching humanity and empathy to our students is essential.
Exposing our students to diversity, situations outside of their experience, and to all possibilities are not just good ideas, they are the foundation by which we should teach. What good does it do to have a literate student who does not have the confidence to look someone in the eye or join in a conversation? How will that student ever meet their full potential?
No students should have to wait until the 10th grade for someone to ask them about their career aspirations and their passions. Brittany deserved more. All of our students deserve more.