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November 21, 2022

Supporting PreK-12 Student Career Exploration

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Career Day was one of my favorite days of school growing up! I had to wear a school uniform, but on Career Day you got to ditch the uniform and dress up as whatever you wanted to be when you grew up, and I always dressed up as the same thing: a teacher. Dressing up as the future occupation I wanted to go into at that time allowed me to dream and picture myself achieving that dream. While I may have shifted my career goals later in life, the benefits from learning about careers and strategies to achieve those goals at an early age remained.

When I was serving as a City Year AmeriCorps member in an eighth-grade classroom, I was doing a small-group session with three of my students who I met with regularly. We got onto the topic of what they wanted to be when they grew up. This conversation stemmed from a conversation around why it was important to learn the specific math topic we were covering. It was hard to engage them before one of them—let’s call him Sean—declared that he was just going to get through school and then go work at the fast food restaurant down the street, and that there was no need for him to know math to do that. One of his fellow students immediately pointed out to him that he would, of course, still need some math, since the ability to count change would be required. Sean was being a bit facetious with his declaration of his future career plans, but this then led to him and the other two students really thinking about what career they actually might be interested in pursuing.

They were discussing different careers that members of their family went into, asking me questions about typical salaries for different occupations, if that salary would be enough to comfortably live off of, and how to pursue that career. Sean was feeling a bit defeated at the beginning of the conversation because he felt like college was not an option for him, and that there was no way he would be able to get into a good career field without it. While part of my work with all my students in the different small groups included helping them build up their self-esteem (and I truly believed that if Sean desired to go to college, he would be successful—and I assured him of this), I also explained that college wasn’t necessary to enter many good career fields.

Exploring career opportunities with students from pre-K through high school allows students to start making plans early, thus permitting them to make good choices that will help them achieve their future dreams. Additionally, student engagement may increase if connections are made between the subjects they are learning and all the possible careers they can go into that rely on those subjects. You can find lessons on potential careers, pathways into those careers, how to create a career portfolio, gap-year opportunities, positive changes that individuals have made through their chosen careers, and more in Share My Lesson’s new Career Exploration collection. Below, you’ll find grade-appropriate resources to introduce career pathways to your students.

Explore careers

Elementary

Starting Career Exploration Early with Play

It’s never too early to start exploring career opportunities with students. Exploring careers with young students not only helps them start thinking about what they want to be when they grow up, but also introduces them to how people in different occupations contribute to their community to ensure it is healthy and thriving. Consider having young students do different art projects such as coloring pages of people in different careers. Check out this ABCMouse resource: Coloring Pages for Career Exploration. Once students have finished coloring, you can discuss with your students the different work that is done in those careers.

Another fun way to introduce careers to students is by reading books about real or fictional people in different careers. For example, read the book Ada Twist, Scientist (available in Spanish), and then use this activity guide from Young Minds Inspired to have students explore what it means to be a scientist and complete engaging science experiments.

Explore and Learn with Ada Twist, Scientist! Activity Preview

Bonus: Check out this suggestion to build a town out of Legos with different businesses and then have a class discussion about what work the people do in each of those buildings.

Learning the Ins and Outs of Careers from Real-Life Professionals

Interviews can be a helpful way for students to learn about different career fields. Check out one of Sarah Dahlman’s career series videos, such as What Is a Recruiter? Interview for Kids, to get started. This resource directs students to interview a relative or family friend about their career and then do a whole-class share-out about who they talked to and what they learned about that person’s job. This resource includes an interview guide, along with other enrichment activities: Career Exploration (Grades 3-5).

Megan Ortmeyer dressed in a firefighter jacket
Megan on a field trip to a local fire station as a child.

Field trips to different places of work, such as a bakery or your local fire station, engages students and gives them a first look at what different careers include. If you are planning a trip to your local fire station, consider reading this book to your students in preparation and using the included teacher guide from Lee & Low Books: At the Firehouse with Dad—Guided Reading Lesson.

Also, consider having a career day at your school, where you invite people in different occupations to come speak to the kids, and make it extra fun by having students dress up as the profession they want to go into. This could be a whole-school event, or you could arrange it for just your class. If bringing professionals physically into the classroom isn’t an option, consider hosting a virtual career day. Career Girls has multiple videos of professionals discussing what their career is, such as:

Steps for Reaching Your Career Goal

Teach children early that the skills they develop and the choices they make now can help them reach their goals. Career exploration can be integrated into any subject and can make lessons more engaging as students understand how the subject can help them achieve their future goals. With this lesson from Career Girls, the Importance of Math, students learn “how math can give [them] some great tools to succeed in everyday life and in a future career.” Career Girls even introduces in a lesson, Choosing the Right Friends, that the people we choose to spend time with can influence our ability to achieve our goals.

Middle and High School

Career Opportunities

There are some occupations that we constantly see in our everyday life or hear about in the television shows we watch, but some are less commonly mentioned. It’s important that we provide students with a wealth of knowledge about the wide array of careers out there.

In this Career Exploration 101 resource from Career Girls, students can hear from 30-plus women in different occupations about what they love most about their career. Students are then asked to complete an activity on what they learned about some of the different careers from the video.

Remote video URL

Researching careers and then including a class share-out is also a helpful way for students to learn about opportunities. Use this resource from educator Ira Kessel to have students dive into career exploration: What Do I Want to Be When I Grow Up (Career and College Exploration).

Career Portfolio

Educating students on how to actually tackle applying for a job is crucial and can prove useful to them immediately. Many high school students and even middle school students may be preparing to apply for their first part-time job. Next Gen Personal Finance has created this lesson to help your students learn the skills they need to apply for a job. As an added bonus, students will also learn about how their credit score impacts them when applying for loans.

Career portfolio activity preview

College/Apprenticeships

While your students may have an idea of the career they want to go into, they might not know what specific steps they must take to reach that career. If a student wants to become a lawyer, then college is a must in order to then apply to law school, but there is flexibility in the major they choose. The type of law a student wishes to practice in the future may influence what major they choose to pursue. Have your students explore different majors with this resource from PwC’s Earn Your Future: College Majors: Career Survey (Grades 9-12).

Attending a four-year university is not the only option when it comes to getting into a good career and may not be the best path for students to achieve their career goals. Apprenticeships can lead to well-paying jobs—and without a mountain of debt. Have students explore the U.S. Department of Labor’s Apprenticeship USA website and the ACE Apprenticeship Pathways webpage to learn about opportunities. Additionally, use these two resources to explore pathways through apprenticeships with your students:

Student participates in CTE

Gap-Year/Service-Year Opportunities

Taking a gap year or service year after completing high school can be an incredibly rewarding experience and can be within reach for anyone. Many programs will help boost individuals’ resumes with new skills and experiences and will also allow students to earn money and/or scholarships. I chose to complete a year of service with City Year AmeriCorps following my undergraduate studies and before pursuing my graduate degree, but many of my colleagues were individuals who had just graduated from high school. AmeriCorps provided us with a living stipend, and upon completion of our service year, we received a Segal Education Award to help with funding future education. Additionally, many schools have partnerships so that additional scholarships are provided to students who have served with AmeriCorps.

Use this SML resource to discuss opportunities with your students: Post-Graduation Blues? Give Students a Jump Start with a Gap Year from SML member Paisley Hansen.

Then have them learn about types of service years here and visit the Gap Year Association website for gap-year opportunities.

Megan Ortmeyer

Megan Ortmeyer is an SML Team Member and has worked in the AFT Educational Issues Department since fall 2018. She received her M.A. in education policy studies in May 2020 from the Graduate School of Education and Human Development at the George Washington University.

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