College and career readiness is a growing initiative across the United States. The U.S. Department of Education recently posted an updated Dear Colleague Letter explaining their goal of providing more opportunities for students to succeed in college, careers, and life. However, like many important initiatives it is broad and there are countless ways in which administrators and teachers can organize and support this effort.
As a former middle school math teacher and current national PD provider for a K-12 STEM curriculum resource, I’ve had many discussions with educators on this topic. Elementary and middle school teachers, in particular, express their need for direction on how to best prepare students with the skills they need to lead a successful life. An essential element of this is understanding how to bridge the gap between classroom content and career pathways.
Here are three practices that can move your students along the continuum of career readiness and success:
- Career exposure
Think back to your time in school…were you ever asked what you wanted to be when you grew up? Perhaps you wanted to go to the moon like Neil Armstrong. Maybe you loved basketball and wanted to “be like Mike.” Students still tend to answer with careers they have been highly exposed to either through the media or their everyday experiences such as professional athlete, astronaut, or actor. While it’s certainly possible that some students will pursue these careers, for others these will not be the right fit.
In order for students to see beyond highly visible careers, schools must help expose them to other possibilities. Career exposure can include experiences that are teacher led, self-directed and some that involve students interacting with adults outside of regular instruction. It might look like field trips to local businesses to learn about the responsibilities of different positions. It may involve professionals visiting the classroom to speak about the work they do. It may look like students using extra class or homework time to research various careers. Ideally, career exposure should involve a combination of all three depending on students’ grade level. The ACT World-of-Work and Kids.gov are two resources that can support teachers and students when engaging in this practice.
- Connect Classroom Content with Career Pathways
For it to be meaningful and impactful, the practice of career exposure should be embedded within the curriculum. This can be done by connecting each unit of study to a specific job or career field based upon the overlap between academic content knowledge and skills used in both the unit of study and the career. Each career that is presented can be explored by students throughout a unit so that they gain a deeper understanding not only of the responsibilities of the job, but also of the knowledge and skills necessary to be successful in it. This provides a real-world driver for why it is important to learn the content and skills connected to the unit of study.
- Develop Self-Awareness
The third practice that supports career readiness is helping the students develop self-awareness. As students are exposed to a variety of career paths, they need to begin to think about what they might like to pursue and why. In order for students to be at a point that they can thoughtfully answer that question, they must be sufficiently self-aware.
There are endless opportunities for students to develop self-awareness during their time in the classroom. It is essential that students have this modeled for them and be explicitly taught how to engage in it consistently. Asking students to reflect on activities, lessons and projects can aid them in uncovering valuable insights about themselves. Hopefully, this reflection leads to “a-ha” moments related to what students are interested in, what their natural work style is and what type of environmental structure and support they need to do their best work. Armed with self-awareness, students in the upper grades can begin to compare their knowledge of different careers with their knowledge of themselves.
When teachers facilitate opportunities for career exposure and self-awareness, it creates a greater chance of students thinking more purposefully about which careers will bring them personal fulfillment and success.