After reading this article about how career readiness is being taught in middle schools, I have to say that I agree with many of the points made by the authors. As a current middle school counselor and former high school counselor, I can say that career education is a part of our schools that tends to take a backseat but is arguably one of the more important topics that can be discussed in our classrooms. I think career education gets put on the back burner because other issues faced by students are seen as more pressing with more immediate impact. Asking students to think about or plan for something that is years down the road comes off as a very abstract concept, but integrating career education into our schools can have an important impact on the choices they make and the way they approach their own education, as well as help them to form other good habits such as goal-setting and critical thinking. Exploring their interests and aptitudes, even as early as middle school, researching careers and working backwards from there can help to highlight how the education they receive and the choices they make today can either put them on or force them off of the track that may one day lead to a fulfilling career that they love and a happy and prosperous life.
Most career education in schools that I’m aware of, particularly at the middle school level, tends to focus on careers in as broad a way as possible. Schools aim to introduce a variety of careers, highlight the skills and education needed to prepare for such careers, and seek to engage the students in learning about their strengths and weaknesses, their likes and dislikes, and how this information relates to potential careers. The article mentioned that some middle schools are offering apprenticeship programs to their students, which would be a wonderful way to expose young minds to more of the day to day details involved in a particular career. Realistically, I’d venture to guess that most schools would not have the time or resources to offer something like that, however impactful it may be.
Looking back at my time as a middle and high school student, as well as a college and graduate student, I remember my teachers and counselors always working to prepare me for what was coming next. Middle school prepared me for high school, high school prepared me for college, and so forth. What was missing in my education, however, and what doesn’t get sufficient attention today, is that all of our education is ultimately a means to an end, a tool for us to use to find a fulfilling career that will allow us to provide a good life for ourselves and our families. With schools beginning to focus more attention on career education, what we’re doing is helping our students formulate an end goal, something that they are building toward, in some way, each and every day. Once you have students who are willing to take an interest in identifying suitable careers, the battle to have them appreciate their own education becomes much easier to fight.
Many middle and high schools, my school district included, make use of a variety of computer programs and online tools that students can access. At the high school level, many of these programs are used for the college application process: students can research college program offerings, communicate with their counselor regarding schools they’re interested in, request letters of recommendation from teachers, and even send transcripts electronically to schools that they’ve applied to. These programs become a one-stop-shop for students that make the decision to take an active interest in their post-secondary school planning. For many schools, using these programs to track their college applications is necessary, as they won’t do it any other way. What is more voluntary, however, is the students taking part in the opportunity to research colleges and universities, their academic offerings, acceptance statistics, geography, social and athletic offerings for theirs students, as well as tuition and financial aid information, and more. All of this comes into play during a student’s senior year of high school, or perhaps junior year for a more proactive student. In my district, our aim is to get students to engage in these programs as early as 6th grade. At that age, students can take a variety of built-in questionnaires and answer questions about themselves that enable them to learn about their learning style and their personality type. From here, we introduce broad categories that different types of careers fit into and encourage students to continue to research careers that relate to their own interests, personality, and learning style. The more a student knows about himself, the less abstract finding and researching potential careers becomes. Eventually, when a student has a better idea about careers types that are of interest to him, he can bridge the gap between exploring careers and finding suitable colleges, which becomes one (albeit giant) step towards making that career (or a related career) their own.
The toughest challenge, however, particularly with middle school students, remains getting them interested in careers in the first place. Many students in 6th, 7th, and 8th grade continue to battle with their parents and teachers about why they have to be in school in the first place, and all of the college and career programs and databases become useless if the students never log in. The key then, in my opinion, remains to work to get the students to appreciate their education as a means to an end. If schools are lucky enough to be able to employ an apprenticeship program for middle schoolers, those students will be able to gain a deep understanding of the day-to-day duties of their mentor. In most schools, that’s not realistic, especially when you’re consider the need to reach the entire student body. With the right message, however, coming from counselors, teachers, administrators, and of course parents, it is possible to engage the students in meaningful career exploration and create an appreciation for the habits and mindset that they can create now to help guide them. It’s also important to remember to keep the pressure off. Students shouldn’t feel as though they are choosing a career at 12 years old, that they’re making a decision that will affect the rest of their life. At that age, knowing what they don't like and researching careers that are of little or no interest to them is just as important as finding careers that they may enjoy as adults. Students will not be able to guide themselves toward careers without first being prompted to think about those careers, and there’s no better place to start this engagement than in middle school.