All Hands on Deck for Student Success in College and Careers

Erin Lark

I love school, bow to stern, port to starboard.  I fell in love early, and hard.

I remember very clearly the moment like it was yesterday.  In 3rd grade, Ms. Young, a first year teacher, asked me to retrieve some materials from her office for our project.  This was a big deal because in my school, a huge, brand new building with 25-foot hallways and a giant brick courtyard, each teacher shared a large office with their neighboring classroom and it was held sacred as only captain’s quarters.  I opened the door, already solemn with the trust and responsibility bestowed upon me, and my jaw dropped.  I saw shelf upon shelf of text, manipulatives, and brick-a-brack of the industry.  The two, highly-organized desks held planner books with copious directions for the week and jar after gifted-mug full of colorful grading pens and paper clips.  For me, a girl who’d always enjoyed learning, this was the moment.  For the first time, I pictured myself in the role of a teacher and set sail on a beloved career journey.

You see, I always knew what I wanted to do, and only truly ever struggle in my life when I veer away from that passion.  That said, passion isn’t enough for success, and looking back I see the choice points faced by myself and others and have a significantly more inclusive picture of the work it takes to set one’s compass, let alone reach shores. 

Students have a two-part challenge in this future-forward thinking.  First, what is one’s passion or collection of greatest passions?  Two, once (if) identified, how does one make that passion a daily reality?  What matters is that students get what they need, when they need it.  This is a platitude, to be certain, but an important buttress for any college and career readiness map.  Educators can be a catalyst in creating and actualizing that plan, so I consider an evolving understanding of student opportunity an essential function of my job.  I can, and do, make a difference, and I’m responsible for increasing access to opportunities, not creating limitations.

That said, for a split second, I could have missed my own mark. 

Image by Michael Schwarzenberger

You probably picked up on the subliminal heart-eyed emojis present each time I mention my career in education.  However, key people in my life tried to talk me out of it, and for a moment their relatively brief input threatened my life’s adventure.

I was in the gifted program, an interesting experience which began in 3rd grade in Arizona and followed a student through high school.  The access to college and career readiness skills I received in a partial pullout program was awesome, I now know, as well as incredibly unfair and exclusive to any students not selected to partake.  We went on copious field trips, talked with professionals in many industries, and were treated as people who would be something great when they grew up.  For those of us in the program, college was an inevitability, we would likely have many choices, and we never talked about finances or other worries.  Conversations about the future were very assumptive and rarely addressed any deficits on our part, only strengths and ease.  While we received positive coaching and ersatz guidance, peers in general programing received little to no information, let alone learning experiences.  Like many teenagers, I only focused on my experience in school, as a teacher, I have to consider how many missed out, and how, thankfully, schools and education programs are working to improve access for all sailors on the seas of learning, though we still have many a mile to go. 

In addition to quality programming, I spent many of these future-focused years with the same cohort of students and most of the years were spent with the same program teacher, as well.

I was shocked, toward the end of junior year, when this same teacher, someone who had to know me after over a decade of interactions, told me in our annual reflection session that I was wasting my future if I went into teaching.  She listed many ways I could better contribute to society with greater prestige, explained that I would essentially be burning the money spent on the process, and that students can just be taught by people using teacher editions of texts.  Stunned, I remember walking out to the quad, and after rehashing the conversation with a peer, hearing the same message from that person.  Why would I want to teach when I could do so many other things that were actually worth while?

Yeah, it was ugly.  I went home in shock, shared the story with my family, most of whom were dumbstruck by the experience, and tried to shake it off.  I also quit attending the program meetings and stopped talking about my plans with those peers.  I could not picture what I could possibly learn from someone who dismissed me so brutally.  Several days later I received a letter in the mail from my aunt, telling me, more gently, the same message, defending the teacher, and using that phrase, “we only want what’s best” that people interacting with children use to rationalize just about anything.  I heard all these perceptions that my choice would only ruin my future, and according to people close to me, I was the only one who could not see this.  What I didn't know at the time is these types of conversations happened for so many and throughout their lives, not just once during their 11th year of school. 

Image by Monika Schröder

At this point, the fates offered me a pivotal point on which to shift my self-centered, presumptive understanding of how one became a professional anything to a position far more reflective of all the variables one faces in their expedition.  I am happy to say I chose to turn the spyglass inward, evaluating my relationship with creating, recognizing, and supporting equity and access.  As I continue to work on my own understanding of historical and current systemic limitations placed on student opportunities, I am reaching outward to be on the same boat as change leaders who have student needs in their sights.

Luckily, for at least a few of the thousands of students I have taught in the interim, I did not take heed of external messaging telling me how to steer my future.  It hurt, though, and took some work to let go of expectations set by people I knew cared about me despite their lack of awareness and respect.  Now, I can look back and forgive the trespass, knowing that well-meaning does not always equal effective action.  That said, how often do students still receive ineffective and potentially harmful college and career messaging from those they cherish?  

Adults of influence must be aware of their interactions with proverbial crew members, ensuring that what is received is 

-inclusive, 

-individualized, 

-interactive, and

-inspirational.  

Image by Steen Jepsen

Rather that let students drift out to sea, we have the opportunity to use professional growth to provide the best of tailwind.  Counseling, official or otherwise, of youth in their preparations for the future must be done with some key understandings, and here are just a few I picked up in my own journey:

1. No one career is a panacea of success, be thorough in your explorations and exposure.

2. People who work in ________ industry, are more than likely not current experts in any other industry.

3. Any statement that includes the phrase “you should just…” is better left unsaid.

4. Becoming a professional anything has downs with the ups and a strong sense of purpose can carry us through many of them.

5. My path is not your path is not my path is not your path.

6. Don’t just open doors for young people, open all the windows, too.

7. Time is the finite and priceless resource.

What precepts of college and career readiness do you espouse in your support of our future workforce?

  • College and Career Readiness
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The opinions expressed by the CORElaborate Bloggers, guest bloggers and those providing comments are theirs alone, and do not reflect the opinions of the Puget Sound Educational Service District (PSESD), Ready Washington or any employee thereof. PSESD is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the Washington State Teacher Leader or Guest Bloggers.

Erin Lark Board

Secondary Science Teacher at Vancouver Public Schools

Erin is an NBCT teaching secondary science in Vancouver, WA. Currently at iTech Preparatory, her work centers on interdisciplinary PBL and mindfulness.Her dissertation focused on youth innovation skills and interests in STEM content and careers, and she continues to advocate for young innovators on the daily as a co-founder of WayfinderWA.