How Teachers Can Help Students Find Purpose and Passion

Discovering your passion in life is not easy for many people. In fact, it often takes years of struggle and hard work to figure out what truly brings us joy.

When we’re given opportunities to explore our interests and talents at a young age, it’s usually much easier to choose a career that makes us happy. As a teacher, here’s how you can tap into your students’ strengths and encourage their curiosity, which may guide them towards more fulfilling lives.

Prioritize Motivation Over Achievement

Our school systems are designed in a way that prioritize academic achievement over intrinsic motivation. It matters more that a students does well on a test than if the topic was interesting or motivating.

Promoting student passion requires teachers to rethink this method, says Patrick Cook-Deegan, founder of Project Wayfinder. “Students who show a sense of purpose have a deeply developed intrinsic motivation to achieve a goal or take part in an activity,” he writes in Greater Good Magazine. When unengaged students discover a topic that interests them and they find pleasurable, they are internally motivated pursue it, regardless of external motivators such as grades.

Helping students find their passion creates a new generation of people who are genuinely interested in the work that they do. Liz Dwyer, managing editor at Shondaland, explains that this helps change the conversation around college as well, allowing high school students to find and pursue majors that bring them joy, regardless of societal expectations. When people are engaged in work they don’t enjoy – even if it’s a high paying career – they likely won’t achieve true success because it simply doesn’t make them happy.

Build Teacher-Student Trust

We’ve discussed why strong teacher relationships are important for student success when it comes to special needs students. But can trusted bonds also help students of all abilities find their purpose? According to Search Institute, students who have strong relationships to their teachers are more likely to be motivated and engaged.

Specifically, it was found that middle school students who had strong developmental relationships with their teachers were eight times more likely to persevere through challenging tasks, enjoy working hard, and be willing to make mistakes. Since making mistakes is a key part of finding one’s purpose, a classroom environment that encourages exploration is conducive to developing passionate, purpose-driven students.

Strong student-teacher relationships also help create a safe environment for students to explore and fail. Learning and growing takes risks, and students need to be in an environment where they feel safe to do so, writes 2017 National Teacher of the Year Sydney Chaffee. Additionally, Chaffee says that relationships are at the center of everything in her classroom. Interactions among students, and between students and teachers, are based on trust, and is the key to helping students thrive.


Foster Collaboration

Collaboration in the classroom helps students feel more involved in their learning process while exposing them to new ideas. One way to involve students in a collaborative learning process is to have students design their own learning environment.

Vicki Davis at The Cool Cat Teacher spoke to creative learning strategist Barbara Bray of Rethinking Learning, who encourages giving students some voice, which allows them opportunities to explore their passions. Bray gave the example of how she stripped the classroom bare, then asked her students to redesign and decorate the space. This rare opportunity let the students express their own interests and change the culture of their own learning environment.

Bray explained that creating a more autonomous classroom with such activities builds a culture of learning, helping each person’s interests become valued. To get a feel for student interest before changing around the classroom, school administrator Derrick Meador recommends sending out student surveys. These surveys can assess what students are excited and curious about. Then, teachers can use this information to create creative, inspirational lesson plans that are directly tied to students’ personal interests.

Share Personal Passion

When students see that their teachers are enthusiastic about learning, they’ll feel more excited to engage with the work. This is why teachers can act as mentors, showing students how to pursue hobbies and passions.

Media and communications manager Natassa Manitsa writes that when teachers share their enthusiasm for a subject, the positive energy is picked up by students. Whether incorporating musical passion in a classroom singalong or enthusing about a birding hobby in biology lessons, there are many ways teachers can share their enthusiasm.

Additionally, thinking about why you decided to become an educator can reignite your passion. Spanish teacher Annabelle Allen explains that she has a domino on her desk as a reminder of why she started teaching. To Allen, the domino symbolizes the idea that teachers all have a domino effect on their students, propelling them forward to pursue a bright and passionate life.


Promote Exploration and Failure

Exploration is essential for discovering new things and finding one’s passion, but trying new things also opens up room for failure.

Deborah Song, who founded the blog WorkLifeParent, says failure helps children discover what they like and don’t like. Trying something new that they find they don’t like or enjoy, still leads children to discover what they do like. Teachers can follow this same idea by helping students explore new and challenging activities in the classroom, even when failure is inevitable.

Failure also allows teachers to demonstrate grit to their students. Sociologist Christine Carter, author of Raising Happiness, writes that grit is the ability to persist in the face of challenges in order to learn and grow. Grit is our ability to cope with difficulty after tragedy and remain resilient despite the inevitable setbacks of life. When students learn to understand that failure is inevitable, and that it can lead to new and exciting paths when overcome, they will work harder to find their passion and purpose.

Career Exploration

Career exploration is another great way to help high school students uncover their passion. One way to test out possible careers is to have your students take a career quiz.

Sydnee Lyons at HerCampus says a career test can help students with self-discovery. The questions on the test are meant to evaluate how personality traits and interests would lend themselves to certain careers. While the results may not be a career that the student is particularly interested in, the process of thinking about their own characteristics and applying them to professions, is a helpful skill that can make students more career-minded.

You can also engage your students in group exercises that ask them to ponder questions about their experience, interests and future careers. McGill University professor Karl Moore outlines a few of these questions:

  • “How have your passion and interests evolved to shape your purpose?
  • “How do they connect to your interests and dreams from your early days?
  • “What pursuits would inspire and give meaning to you?
  • “What impact would you like to make on others?”

Asking students to answer to these questions and discuss them with peers can generate excitement about the future. And set them on a path for a lifetime of pursuing their passions.

Images by: Petra, Thomas Giehr, RawPixel

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