The scary ‘C word’ in high schools
How we can inject career development into schools now
Veronica is a Grade 11 student in the Louis Riel School Division in Winnipeg. Intelligent, friendly, engaged. She has a supportive family and group of friends.
In every aspect of her life, she is happy and well-adjusted – except one. She confesses that thinking about the ‘C-word’ – career – makes her feel lost.
“I personally had no idea what I wanted to do after high school and the thought of trying to figure it out scared me.”
Veronica is not alone in her angst. Research indicates that as career indecision increases, students experience higher levels of anxiety.
She faces the quintessential problem for high school students: what to do after high school.
Considering its ubiquitous and highly relevant nature to every student in every K-12 school system, career development surely gets serious attention in schools, right?
Students are often left on their own. Schools prioritize completing those 30 credits, not figuring out what students can do with them. And that’s a problem.
More from the author
3 key challenges that keep career development as a ‘nice-to-have’
The problem is that when schools assume career development (CD) naturally happens without substantive help from the education system, they ignore a serious disconnect with students like Veronica who lack the skills, knowledge, and confidence to make informed and purposeful decisions about their futures.
The prevailing nature of school organization and mindset poses challenges for offering systemic career development for all K-12 students.
1. Divisional/district leadership
Leadership is the key component. A recent article (Purchase, 2022) expounds on the important impact principals may have in delivering career development programming in schools. They shape the vision of their schools and decide who will lead career development initiatives and facilitate courses. If a physical education teacher is teaching a CD course, that’s the principal’s call.
Leadership, however, has to extend even higher up the food chain. When Britain published the Gatsby Benchmarks of Good Career Guidance and made career development activities mandatory in the school system in 2018, it became the law to do CD in schools. That’s commitment.
School subjects and life in most schools are organized in compartmentalized silos. The high school experience, for the most part, fits into course timetables with tight timeframes, each course laden with specialized content that rarely deviates outside its boundary. In Manitoba, even our Life Works/Career Development 9-12 electives inadvertently nurture the impression that CD begins and ends when the assignments are completed.
3. Space for reflection
Students need time to reflect on why and how courses may connect to their lives in the present and to assess how the skills and knowledge within those courses may contribute to their futures. School schedules are so packed with courses and homework, students rarely have time to do more than complete the assignments. The system simply does not allow students to take time for necessary reflection about the impact of the courses on their lives.
Practical ways to build systemic CD
Students’ readiness to engage in career development varies with age and maturation, so any programming must be robust enough to connect with students when they feel ready. Below are some ideas to inject career development into traditional school systems without radical alterations:
- Use the CMEC Benchmarks. Education ministers across Canada have done the heavy lifting. They’ve agreed to 11 CD benchmarks in a Reference Framework document, along with a Student Transition Benchmark Self-Assessment Tool and a Student Transition Action Plan. You can’t start planning for systemic career development without figuring out where you’re at with CD first.
- Include CD in the school plan. Schools write and implement school plans every year where they determine priorities, themes, initiatives, opportunities and exploratory ideas. Career development can be prioritized by including it in the yearly plan.
- Put a career coach in every school. Gone are the days of single-discipline departments heads (English, science, physical education, etc.). As new leadership roles in schools emerge – humanities, IT, integrated learning – the time is right to create career leaders in every high school who are trained and certified in the art of CD. Elementary and junior high feeder schools can benefit from the Career Leader in the high school, who can share expertise on developing an unobtrusive career lens on classroom learning.
- Inject CD into every academic course. Career development can be brought into every class to help students see the relevance of what they’re learning. Every course has the potential to ignite a CD discussion to apply content and knowledge to future aspirations and bring incredible relevance to students’ lives. Trained career coaches can work with subject teachers to reveal the best ways to connect subject matter with career content (such as LMI) and share ways to mentor students through a reflective CD process. Better yet, why not train teachers in the art of CD applications for students?
- Connect JEDI to career development. JEDI (justice, equity, diversity, inclusion) principles offer a powerful conduit that seamlessly flows toward CD processes for students. Career development honours the lives, choices, backgrounds and mindsets of every individual and is integral to helping students move forward and make life choices with confidence. Effective CD builds on every person’s diverse and unique qualities as strengths on their powerful journey toward self-actualization.
Tackling fears head-on
Veronica participated in a series of CD workshops with me.
She used the LEAN Career Design Canvas to help her reflect about who she is, which skills she has and which skills she wants to acquire.
She learned about her “career cluster” and examined data about jobs, trends, salaries, education and skills.
Perhaps most importantly, she appreciated the chance to express her authentic feelings about life after high school.
She said, “I was in panic mode, but these workshops helped me become my own guidance counsellor.” She felt a weight being lifted from her as she gathered knowledge and insights about future possibilities.
Veronica’s worry about the next steps after high school will not disappear entirely. Thinking about the unknown has this inherent effect. But now, her uncertainty will be tempered by knowledge, reflection and a growing sense of confidence moving forward as she continues her drive to find her best self.
She discovered that the C word doesn’t have to be scary.
Adriano Magnifico is the Career and Entrepreneurship Consultant at the Louis Riel School Division in Winnipeg and a member of CERIC’s Advocacy & Community Engagement Committee.