As much as (at times) we may wish it did, life just doesn’t follow a prescribed pathway. While we age on a linear time continuum, life itself is not linear - nor are our careers. We move forward, we experience failures, setbacks, side steps, and detours. We change our minds. Needs change, circumstances change, choices we make send us in different directions. Our tastes and interests change with time. In short, we are not the same people we once were. I know I’m surely not and I think it’s safe to say that most of you reading this are not either.
When we talk about career pathways, the intention is well meaning, but the implications are completely disconnected from the needs of the individual student. After all, there is no set of instructions for getting from age 16 to age 45 that can possibly take into consideration the myriad ways humans continue to grow and learn, not just after high school, but throughout life.
At a time in education when we seek to streamline and standardize as many of our processes and procedures as possible, guiding our students toward fruitful and fulfilling career paths needs to be exempt from such conversation.
Think back to when you were in high school. You may have had an inkling, perhaps a strong idea, or, very likely, no idea whatsoever about what you wanted to do “when you grew up”. There simply is not a pre-paved road (or, if you’re an innovative educator, a pre-dug a trench) to get students where their heart and soul desire for them to go. Today’s student’s need more guidance than ever, but we need to be very careful about how we think about and teach getting students to their desired careers (the one or many, whatever they end up choosing).
This does not mean however that we should not be having a very important conversation about supporting our students during their high school years to think about and make connections for their futures. I have done this work myself with hundreds of students, and it is incredibly rewarding and eye-opening for students in a way that every school owes it to their students to deliver.
The reason there can never be a set of “career pathways” is because there is absolutely no way to standardize a child’s dreams or our children’s futures, just as we have seen clearly in the push for increased standardized testing in recent years. Sure, there are indeed some students whose hearts and minds are set on becoming doctors, teachers, lawyers, or some profession that has clear educational requirements. Even in those cases however, the “pathways”, while having common benchmarks, still require individualized approaches to helping students get where they would like to go. Why, you ask, do we need to employ differentiated approaches to the students who are interested in being elementary school teachers, or a brain surgeons? Quite simply, because even those students, with the clear and passionate dreams, will be very differentiated in their experiences of getting from high school to the classroom or the O.R.
Remember that a career is not a destination, it is a journey: one that will be completely unique, is meant to be personally fulfilling and is guaranteed to be filled with peaks and valleys, twists and turns. Our work then is to prepare our students by teaching them how to handle the challenges and changes ahead of them. This may be the most powerful teaching moment we have - and the most important lessons they learn about life: talking about the truths of life’s trials and tribulations and guiding students through the process of making their own informed decisions.
When students are well equipped with an understanding of how to navigate the challenges of adulthood, and when they are tapped into a network of adults who can help, those students are more likely to be able to make informed decisions and navigate the emotional impact of hitting roadblocks.
What students really need are classes that teach them how to make smart and informed decisions in difficult moments, engage in hands-on experiences in the workplace, and to develop a network of professional adults who can help them navigate the uncharted waters ahead. And make no mistake, those waters are uncharted. We live in a world that is changing so rapidly that simply teaching students to do things the way we did them will not work. We are preparing students to enter a world we do not know. Careers, jobs, technology and economies change constantly. Their world, their reality, is so different from ours yet they need us to guide them, so we educators must all become futurists in a system that is older than all of us.
This is critical work, and it is possible. I know how to do it and I did it in an urban high school for a population of students with every challenge imaginable. Still with me? Let me tell you how you can start to incorporate these methods today.
Some schools have concepts of career pathways that do indeed incorporate individual student planning, or differentiation on some level, but we need to be sure that our thinking begins here in the first place. We must be aware of the well-meaning experiences that miss the mark: there is a critical need for rich and meaningful conversation, coaching and personalized exploration that cannot be gained simply through field trips, job shadow days, or co-ops that send groups of students into a workplace for a day or week.
In our current system, there is absolutely no way for us to deliver meaningful and viable preparation for student career exploration within the four walls of our schools. We absolutely must engage the community as a classroom model and provide every possible opportunity for students to begin to build networks with professional adults outside of school well before graduation day. These relationships will be the very connections that carry our young people through college and into their 20s. These adults will become our students’ mentors, friends and guides - the very people who help our students traverse the critical gap (with all its roadblocks and challenges) after high school through which we in K12 won’t be there to guide them.
Knowing and acknowledging that we cannot provide all of the necessary coaching and differentiation that our students need to traverse life and career, we must think about the ways we can engage members of the community to step in to mentor and build long-lasting relationships with our students. I have created several methods around this community engagement, but it can be tricky. The first step needs to be around creating a culture within your school that values the input and engagement of community members in our students lives. A warm and welcoming culture, one that values and celebrates the involvement of the “village” is essential to the amount of work ahead of us - and our students. We will be able to meet our needs and those of our students through deep community engagement events, not just after school or during assemblies, but in our classrooms as part of our instruction. This is, at its core, a change in culture.
Our students will soon leave the safety and familiarity of our classrooms and our school buildings. They will be sent out into the world to face many challenges that may seem similar to but are so much more complex than those we recall encountering ourselves. There is so much information that we must share with students about the real world, about young adulthood, about finances and workplace culture, and about how to overcome those myriad choice points, challenges and obstacles of adulthood. It is time for our schools to prioritize such lessons and curriculum for our young adult students. Through new and innovative lessons, we open the doorway for students to have rich, meaningful, and differentiated experiences and conversations about their futures and their own unique journeys ahead.
There is no standardized career pathway. I have been an innovator in education for 15 years, and my journey included some very unexpected twists and turns - but without those, I would not be where I am today. I imagine that you and I could have quite a conversation about our journeys. I have yet to meet anyone who decided at age 17 what they wanted to do and didn’t encounter a stumbling block, a loss, or a change in the wind requiring an adjustment to the sails. We owe it to our kids to teach them how to sail on open seas in stormy weather so that each of them is fully prepared to stay strong and reach their heart’s destination - the one, or twenty seven different destinations they dream of.