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5 Ways Middle School Leaders Can Support Career Navigation

June 10, 2024

At a glance

Replicable practices used by Charlestown High School to create a career navigation system in its inaugural middle school, Dream Academy.

Practices & Centers

We don’t have a lot of additional resources to put toward career exploration. That’s why we embedded it into our advisory and engaged all teachers in using a free curriculum.

Educator at the Dream Academy, Charlestown High School, Boston, Massachusetts

Many, if not most, people remember middle school as a bit of a roller coaster. No wonder—it is a developmental period of rapid growth, and to complicate matters, every child changes at their own pace. No one stays in sync. But what if another “given” of middle school, one that evoked positive memories, was that it was a time of receiving guidance and encouragement to get curious about the future and wonder what’s possible? Imagine if it was a time when career exploration was integrated into curriculum and included activities to broaden horizons and connect students’ interests and preferences to possible career pathways.

Research shows this should be happening. In fact, middle school students benefit the most from career exploration, a process of building self-awareness, learning about potential careers, and developing a plan for reaching future goals. Although there is growing recognition of the importance of middle school career exploration, few states support scalable and sustainable programs. Career exploration and navigation are strategic priorities for JFF’s journey to reach its North Star, and partnerships are key. That is why JFF was thrilled to collaborate with Charlestown High School (CHS), a longtime early college partner, to create an early career navigation system in its inaugural middle school, Dream Academy (Dream).

This blog shares concrete actions Dream Academy took over two school years that education leaders can apply in their own settings to build and support middle school career navigation.

Dream Academy, a small and growing middle school housed within CHS in Boston, Massachusetts, welcomed its first classes of seventh- and eighth-grade students in 2021. With support from the Linde Family Foundation, JFF collaborated with Dream on building an early career navigation system anchored by the Possible Futures (PF) career exploration curriculum. The partnership focused on preparing students for a successful transition to ninth grade with emerging ideas about their career and postsecondary aspirations. With support from the CHS principal, the Dream Academy director’s vision was that “every student leaves Dream with a dream.” Another goal was building capacity to carry the work forward without JFF. Below are five key, replicable practices Dream Academy implemented and plans to sustain.

Our students are not just broadening their awareness of career options, they’re learning and practicing skills like collaboration and communication that will help them in school and at work.

Educator at the Dream Academy, Charlestown High School, Boston, Massachusetts

1. Set clear, schoolwide expectations and designate and empower staff leads

In an essential first step, the Dream Academy director identified lead teachers (leads) responsible for coordinating PF curriculum development and implementation with JFF and the other teachers. He intentionally chose teachers both experienced and open to innovative ways to build community and student engagement. The year’s career exploration vision and goals were shared at an all-staff retreat ahead of the school year to facilitate schoolwide buy-in and enlist all teachers in their dual roles as subject area and advisory teachers. Leads communicated regularly with their fellow teachers, sharing lessons through Google Drive and often using common planning time to seek feedback on lessons. Additionally, a pre- and post-survey assessed teachers’ comfort, perceptions, and attitudes about implementing PF for career exploration. This feedback sparked important refinements, including streamlining lessons to 20 to 30 minutes. The Dream director made it clear he trusted the leads, reinforced the vision and expectations at staff meetings, and ensured teachers had the necessary support to implement the lessons.

2. Provide consistency and flexibility to meet student and teacher needs

Dream decided to implement lessons in its weekly advisory sessions to ensure a low advisor-student ratio. Initially, advisory sessions were in the afternoon, but student engagement was low during that time of the day. To address this issue, advisory moved to mornings the following year, and as student engagement improved, so did teachers’ comfort with the lesson topics and activities. For 2023-24, JFF worked with Dream Academy to develop a yearlong scope and sequence of lessons, planning around the school master calendar and aligning to monthly themes identified as middle school priorities, such as skill-building in self-regulation, collaboration, and conflict resolution. The leads soon became comfortable selecting and adapting lessons without support from JFF. While all lessons took 20 to 30 minutes and were highly interactive, they included flexible topics and activities based on the leads’ understanding of the instructional norms of the school, which included teacher choice. This fluidity allowed teachers to select different activities within a lesson to meet their students’ learning needs and interests.

3. Empower teachers to be co-learners with students

Teachers exhibited varying levels of comfort facilitating career exploration conversations with students. They were receptive to lessons that required modeling for and assisting students to improve their communication and collaboration skills and to build trust and community in the class. On the other hand, the introduction to STEM careers lessons could feel intimidating, especially when students sometimes asked questions teachers couldn’t answer about a technical skill or career path. PF doesn’t require teachers to be STEM content experts. Instead, the curriculum encourages teachers to assume the role of co-learner with students. This cultivates an environment of curiosity through learner-centered activities that engage students in exploring and wanting to learn more, especially if the STEM area interests them. To support teachers, the leads modeled the co-learner behavior and shared the positive student engagement, learning, and growth they experienced by taking that stance in their advisory. JFF also shared free, high-quality career exploration resources, such as online career research tools, for teachers to incorporate.

4. Value students’ voices

Dream constantly sought student feedback, so their voices were represented in decisions about lesson topics and activities. The school used formal methods like pre- and post-surveys and focus groups as well as listening to students’ comments and observing their engagement during class. Surveys asked students about their experience, perceptions, and attitudes regarding advisory sessions. They overwhelmingly classified the sessions as helpful, with most students reporting the sessions aided them in learning more about themselves and preparing for high school with ideas about college and career plans. In focus groups during the first year, students shared that they enjoyed learning about careers and preferred to learn by doing. The findings informed the following year’s curriculum scope and sequence, which put a greater emphasis on activities and introducing careers monthly instead of at year’s end.

5. Make lesson topics and activities relatable

The leads observed students engaged more deeply with lessons when they shared about themselves. For example, students spoke confidently about their unique traits in a “What I Bring” lesson, which introduced them to the concept of a personal brand and showed how to use it to open doors to opportunities. Students grasped concepts and applied them to other experiences when the lessons were more relatable. For example, students drew on what they learned in a lesson about strengths and weaknesses called “How Our Differences Make Us Stronger” to identify their positions on a field during a team game. However, some students found introductory STEM career lessons abstract, especially those not interested in the field. Students also encountered unfamiliar concepts they struggled to grasp, such as median salary wages, which were challenging because most students tended to think in terms of hourly wages. Listening to students in real time helped teachers plan how to increase relatability and accessibility for all students.

Children and young teens begin developing their sense of self and become curious about their futures in middle school. They start to identify what they like doing and what they are good at based on their experiences. Middle school career exploration can broaden students’ horizons and connect their interests and preferences to possible career pathways. It builds a foundation for young people to make informed decisions about their education and career aspirations. Dream Academy’s replicable practices demonstrate a simple yet effective approach—weekly schoolwide career exploration advisory—that education leaders can use to build and support a middle school career navigation system that engages every student in imagining and learning how to make sound choices about their future.

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