When I look at my room full of 5th graders, I can see glowing potential in many of my students. The bright, ornery boy in the third row is in love with science and wants to be an engineer. The bossy, but compassionate, girl by the closet begs to file papers and always wants to help struggling classmates. She wants to be a special education teacher. The girl with fiery red hair in the front row plans to be a CEO someday. With many of our students, their future careers are written all over them. They have been encouraged and inspired at home to “think big” and “reach for the stars.” That’s wonderful for those students but what about the ones who don’t have an encouraging home environment? We have the honor of cheering them along!
The upper elementary years are the perfect starting place for students to start thinking about college and careers. Of course, they have years to go before they actually enter a college classroom. However, there are some things they should know and start thinking about NOW!
- Students need to think about how their choices now will affect them later. They need to understand that reputations form early and their grades and behavior incidences will follow them from elementary school to middle school and high school. My very best story to illustrate this comes from a 5th grader I taught a few years ago. We had just finished talking about college and had a guest speaker. The guest speaker happened to be a family court lawyer. The lawyer talked about how poor behavior in school can keep you from going to college. At recess time later that day, a group of boys was arguing back and forth and they were close to erupting into a full-blown fistfight. As I was approaching the group to break up the students, I heard one of the boys say, “Man, I don’t need this. I’m going to college and I don’t need you clowns messing that up for me!”
- Students need to expand their future career horizons. Introduce your students to interesting careers. When you study rocks and minerals, talk to them about becoming a geologist. When you study historical events, explain how scientists go about finding artifacts and talk to students about becoming an archaeologist. When I look back to my school years, there was very little talk about future careers and college majors. I remember getting to college and looking at the major listings for each department and thinking, “WOW, I didn’t know all of these choices existed!” Let’s open our students’ eyes to some of the exciting options they have when looking ahead to college. You might inspire a future actuarial science major or sports medicine specialist. When students have a goal in mind, they have something to work toward and they can narrow their focus in middle school and high school.
- We must give students hope that there will be many ways to pay for college and they will have options no matter the financial situation they are facing. I teach in a school where 75% of my students live in poverty-stricken homes. So, this is a crucial discussion for me to have with students. When talking with students, I find that some of them dismiss the idea of college early because they have no idea how to pay. I like to talk about all of the options that they will have for paying for college, including athletic/academic scholarships, grants, loans, work-study programs, and etc. If students think college is a possibility, they will work toward it!
- Build relationships with students by talking to them about their futures. Students are more than a standardized test score and you can show them that you believe in them by talking about their futures and how you can’t wait to see what they become. Put down the novel set or math assignments for a day and invest in your students’ futures! They will be even more inspired to work hard for you because they will understand how even as 5th graders (or 4th graders or 6th graders), they are laying the foundation that will enable them to be successful in high school and college.
- Help students start to think about their strengths and weaknesses. Some students are tender-hearted and will fit perfectly into a helping career, like social workers, teachers, and nurses. Some students are analytical and will want to pursue careers in business, science, and medicine. Point out the characteristics you notice in students and help students begin to reflect upon their own characteristics. This will help students start to think about clubs, organizations, and groups that will be helpful for them to join and will look great on their college applications!
I would like to add that not all students want to or will go to college and that’s ok! I have had many students through my classroom that dream of being mechanics, cosmetologists, military, and etc. We need those careers too! I want every student to know that college is available if they are up for the challenge but vocational training is a wonderful option as well!