Teachers often feel pulled in two directions when it comes to preparing students for their future careers. On one hand, students need a solid, well-rounded education that can help them in the future. They need good grades and test scores to attend college and enter the workforce. On the other hand, educators want to foster a love of learning and a genuine curiosity about the world. They want their students to read for fun and to ask questions about science, nature and technology.
Excitement about learning and career planning don’t have to be warring factors. You can integrate career exploration into some of your most engaging lesson plans — to the benefit of your students’ futures. Here are a few ways to introduce new careers and potential professions to students.
Invite Guest Speakers to the Class
One of the best ways to introduce new careers to your students is to invite guest speakers to your classroom. These are people who operate in professions relevant to the materials you cover in class. A guest speaker provides a direct connection between what students are learning now and how it could be relevant in the future. However, you have to be strategic in how you invite people to your class.
“In initial communications with your speaker, be clear about your expectations, what in particular would be important for your students to learn, and information about your students and unit,” says Amber Osuba, vice president of business operations at e-learning providers EverFi. “Broad prep could lead to broad speaking points, which often leads to a lack of engagement.”
For example, a science teacher could bring in a biologist to talk about their work at any point in the school year. However, it’s more effective to introduce a shark researcher during a unit about marine biology. Similarly, you can invite a solar technician to speak during a unit on energy creation.
The team at online teaching tools and STEM resources provider, AVID Open Access, says teachers should be intentional with the amount of time allotted to guest speakers. While an in-class speaker can talk for 30 to 60 minutes, you might only need to spend 10 to 15 minutes with a virtual speaker to discuss what they do. This makes it easier to have a regular speaker series without losing a whole class period.
You will also want to allow extra time for your students to ask questions or for the speaker to run over time. Make sure the guest speaker knows how long they should present and whether they should be prepared to answer questions throughout the session.
If you don’t know any experts who have the careers of knowledge you want, there are multiple ways to find them. First, you can reach out via email or social media. Tweet the astronomer you enjoy following or send an email to a local art museum about talking to the curator. You might be surprised by how willing these professionals are to speak at your school.
You can also look for specialty sites that pair speakers with teachers. Skype a Scientist is one organization that connects scientists to classrooms who want to hear from them. They have almost 6,000 scientists and formed 11,500 matches between them scientists and teachers in 2020.
Field Trips for Career Exposure
In some cases, you may want to bring your students to the professional instead of asking them to visit your classroom. These field trips can be done as a whole class or with small groups depending on the goals of your administrative team. Meeting an employee at the company where they work can often change how students think of a profession.
“Just as I dreamed of becoming the president or playing professional football by observing others, students exposed to the brightest minds of today’s workplaces can see themselves in those roles in the future,” says Eric Tobias, an entrepreneur and investor at High Alpha. “Giving young people the chance to shine as early as possible by exposing them to industry leaders and educational programs is the gateway to creating a future generation bound for success.”
These exploratory field trips can start in middle school. The Association of Middle Level Educators (AMLE) and American Student Assistance (ASA) surveyed what middle school students think about their careers. Eighty-seven percent of middle school students are interested in matching their specific skills or interests to future careers. One-half of the respondents said picking the right career is a source of stress.
If you aren’t sure about career exploration field trips, talk to a teacher who has had success with them. Educators across the country have been following this practice for years.
“The goal is to give the kids an idea of what it would be like to work in that environment so they are more aware of the options that are available to them after graduation,” says Craig Hurst, a high school teacher in Missouri. “I’ve had around 20 businesses volunteer to provide a tour. So far, the kids have been excited about the places they’ve gotten to see.”
Host a Career Fair or Mock Job Fair
If you want to expand the opportunity to learn about different careers beyond your classroom, consider working with other teachers to host a school-wide career fair. During this event, professionals in different fields discuss what they do and what kind of career path students would take to work for them. Schools can also host mock job fairs where employers talk to students about their skills and how they would apply in different fields.
Theresa Rex at college and career readiness platform SchoolLinks put together a useful guide to hosting a career fair. She says teachers need to ask questions about the event to enhance the planning process. These questions range from which goals to track the success of the career fair to which groups you should reach out to.
For example, should parents be allowed to attend? This will affect when you can hold the event and may affect turnout. While hosting the event in the evening might help more career professionals attend, it also isolates students who can’t stay after school or return to school easily after they leave for the day.
Many people think career fairs are meant for high school students who need to start thinking about college majors and their post-graduation futures. However, you can host a career fair for young students as well, which can help them learn about different professions.
Speech language pathologist Lisette Edgar created a guide at Speech Sprouts for hosting a career day with younger students. One example she provides is handing out a grab bag with different clues to each profession. Kids can read the description and try to guess what the profession is. Other games, like bingo or a scavenger hunt, can also make the fair engaging.
These career fairs can also be used for relationship-building. Your career fair attendees can become future classroom guests. Some of their workplaces might become field trip locations.
“K-12, higher education, and industry systems tend to function in silos, so they do not coordinate their efforts to prepare future workers,” write Ashley Jeffrey and Laura Jimenez at the Center for American Progress. “By eliminating those silos, coordinating preparation efforts, and designing equitable programs, the three systems can help Black, Latinx, Pacific Islander, Native, and certain Asian American students gain the skills and knowledge they need to enter college or the workforce.”
Introduce Students to Entrepreneurship
Along with introducing different industries to students, you can also showcase different types of work styles. Not every student will work for a major corporation, and your entrepreneurship lessons can give them a foundation for starting their own businesses.
“We have seen increasing entrepreneurship; we have many students who are not necessarily first looking for a job at an established company that will give them the skills to then go out and start their own company,” says Brigitte Madrian, dean of the Marriott School of Business at Brigham Young University. “A lot of startups don’t make it, but we have some notable examples of students who graduated, started their companies straight out of school, and are doing quite well.”
Fortunately, kids don’t have to wait until they enter business school to learn about entrepreneurship. There are multiple classroom activities and resources you can use to bring this concept to your students. Kidspreneurship has worksheets teachers can use to lead students through the process of identifying problems, forming solutions and developing a business. This site is based on the idea that kids learn through playing and fun activities make for memorable learning.
The group CEOs of Tomorrow also has resources for teachers who want to bring entrepreneurship to the classroom. They create materials and offer programs for kids from fourth grade through high school. These include a Teen Incubator and business kits for kids.
Entrepreneurship can be taught in almost any class. It can be part of a history and social studies class as students learn about different inventors and businesspeople. It can be part of a math class as students learn about balancing formulas. There are also stand-alone programs that can be done as an after-school club or long-term class activity.
Develop Career-Based Projects
It’s possible to create projects and lesson plans throughout the year that reflect the potential careers that students might work toward. These projects can take something that students are interested in and show how the material applies outside of the classroom.
“Connecting what a student does in school to their career aspirations helps students enjoy and engage more in what they study,” writes the team at college and career readiness site Texas OnCourse. “It also makes it more likely for students to succeed.”
For a solid resource on building your lesson plans, turn to Amanda Grossman at Money Prodigy. She shares multiple worksheets and lesson plan ideas on her blog. These range from asking students to create job applications for careers they want to completing career family trees where students learn about the careers of their parents and relatives. This is a good place to start when introducing young learners to careers.
Career-focused projects can help students focus on why they are in school. It can motivate them to work hard — not just in the classes they are interested in, but all of their subjects in order to get good grades and enter their chosen profession.
“With students more aware of an end goal, they are more likely to persist in the face of challenges,” education writer Larry Bernstein explains at college and career readiness program Xello. “The vision of a potential career encourages students to be more focused on their current studies as they see the value in them.”
Lesson plans that introduce students to careers can be as simple as a 10-minute worksheet or guest speaker call. However, they can also grow into semester-long capstone projects and extended field trips. Look at your resources and your overall course goals to develop projects and lesson plans that meet your needs.