How to Get Teachers to Prepare Students for College and Career Readiness

Dr. Jeff Keeling
Dr. Jeff Keeling
High school principal; Ed.D. in Educational Leadership
Chalkboard with steps and a yellow arrow leading up to ‘Career’.

Why are College and Career Readiness Important for Students?

The ultimate goal of K-12 education is the preparation of students for post-high school life. At times this goal can become clouded by overemphasizing the process of education as opposed to the desired final product. Although teachers overwhelmingly have the best interests of their students in mind, there are occasions in which educators may become more consumed with their specific course content than with the task of preparing the “whole” student for success after graduation.

College and career readiness should be the most important priority of all K-12 school systems. Elementary and secondary schools lay the foundation for students to leave their halls prepared either for specific careers immediately following high school or to further their education at a post-secondary institution. In truth, students’ proficiency with solving quadratic equations, writing term papers, or conducting experiments has little transferrable value unless students also develop a plan for how they will use their education as a springboard into their desired careers or higher education.

Start Preparation Early

Perhaps the most critical feature of a college and career readiness plan is that it should be comprehensive with clearly defined steps established for all grades from Kindergarten through 12. The earlier students are presented with potential career options, the more time they have to develop interests and understanding of the possibilities available to them.

During the primary years, students generally display interest in careers related to protective and emergency services (i.e. police officer, firefighter, medical doctor, etc.) or those in the professional sports or entertainment world (NFL football player, movie star, YouTube sensation, etc.). While these dreams and interests should be fostered to as great of an extent as possible, the job of educators is to understand that students’ desires will change as they mature and also that while a select few individuals achieve large-scale stardom and recognition in athletics and entertainment, establishing a “Plan B” is a crucial step.

Ideally, educators should not take on the role of extinguishing children’s dreams; however, they should provide younger students with a realistic perspective of the types of career options available along with the levels of training and education required for success within each of these fields.

Provide Opportunities for Exploration

Opportunities for college and career exploration should be provided from the primary grades through high school completion. As students progress through the grade levels, their career exploration experiences should transition from general exposure to a variety of options to more specific choices based upon their interests and abilities. As an example, at the primary level, students benefit greatly from parent career presentations, which essentially consist of parents visiting individual classrooms and sharing about their careers with students. This process allows students to develop an understanding of the types of careers held by members of their own communities and to gain a perspective on what each type of career entails.

As students progress toward middle school, college and career planning should become more specific. During this time, students may complete interest inventory surveys that will correlate their answers with applicable careers. Additionally, both core and elective classes should contain elements of college and career exploration. As an example, students should learn about the ways in which various mathematic concepts relate to career skills such as engineering that they are learning about in their STEM classes. Another example would be students learning the ways in which writing skills can be applied to journalism, online blogging, and coding, among others.

By the time students reach their freshman year of high school, they should have a well-rounded understanding of how a variety of careers “look.” At this stage, students’ development of post-secondary goals begins to shift into “high gear.” Upon reaching high school, students should be given several opportunities to attend career fairs both in-person and virtually.

Additionally, most school systems have a partnering career center or vocational-technical school that provides industry-based certifications in a variety of trades and professions. Students should be given several opportunities to visit the career center and receive information about the specific training programs offered, as well as the career outcomes related to each program. During this phase, students should determine whether they prefer a career that requires only a high school diploma, an industry certification, or higher education.

Students’ desired career choices then should be used to dictate their educational pathway throughout the remainder of their high school years, and teachers must take an active role in talking with students in order to individualize their instructional programs to as great of an extent as possible in order to prepare them for their selected choices.

Additionally, students in the upper grades should be provided with opportunities to job-shadow individuals within their desired career fields. Job shadowing is critical in either affirming students’ selections or in helping them identify that an option may not be the best fit for them. Finding out that a career is not a good fit and choosing another option while in high school is highly desirable to earning a degree and incurring significant student loan debt only to discover that a chosen career is no longer desirable.

Teach Soft Skills

One aspect of college and career readiness that can easily be overlooked is the development of soft skills. These skills include non-academic traits such as working with others, time management, interpersonal communication, problem solving, and creative thinking, among others. These skills cannot be learned simply by being told what they are; however, teachers should structure lessons and activities in a manner that requires students to employ these skills and build proficiency over time.

What can Teachers Do?

The most important contribution teachers can make in promoting college and career readiness among their students is to adopt an approach that focuses on the big picture as opposed to the microcosm of the classroom. As an example, an algebra teacher should not be offended if a student dislikes their content area. They should assist the student in learning the content required for a passing grade but should also assist in directing the student toward a career for which he or she is best-suited. Ultimately, teachers play a critical role as part of the village it takes to achieve college and career readiness for all students.

*Updated February, 2021
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