Possibilities: Schools as Dream Assistors

  • Elementary
  • High School
  • Middle School
Irene Smith

“How do you picture yourself twenty years from now?” I asked my eighth grade Advisory class.  The students handed me their anonymous responses one at a time as they headed out the door and into the wind and cold.

Here are a few answers:

                I want to be involved in the law, and not in a criminal way…in a professional way (maybe a federal agent, lawyer, or forensic scientist)

                I hope to have a small house that was broken down, but I fixed it, and I’m going to sell it for more than I paid for it. I hope to have a good job, like being a teacher, propaganda writer, or an actor.

                I hope to be a translator or use some sort of language, whether it be on a computer or real life.

                My goal is to do what I love. Even if I have to sleep in my car, it will be worth it, but I also want a home and family.

                I want to live with my friends in a giant house and have a good paying job, and also have one cat and one dog.

                I will be 6 Feet under.

Painting of a pensive young woman.

Whoa, wait a minute. Did one of my students actually write that last one?

And, what about the girl who couldn’t write anything? Blank. No dream. She just looked at me rather hopelessly and then scurried off into the icy world between her classes.

We all know that some students are preparing themselves for successful future lives no matter what their teacher is or isn’t doing.  These students usually enjoy reading, creating adventures and crafting items. They enjoy solving problems, have friends, pay attention in class, are willing to experiment, and are unfazed by minor challenges and failures.  These students often have families and others that provide experiences and opportunities to envision a positive future with a multitude of options and opportunities.


Just as we must put in the extra effort to help students overcome learning weaknesses, I also believe it is a schools’ responsibility and honor to help students toward healthy, happy futures by widening the limited view they may be experiencing. This is especially true if their limited view is mainly eclipsed by negative factors. Gang life. Drug use. Dysfunctional relationships. Criminal behavior. Abuse. Neglect. Negative effects of poverty. We should help young people see possibilities, particularly if they don’t have the benefit of a family and/or community that opens windows and doors for them. If they don’t have a vision for themselves, we must be aware and help them imagine pathways ahead.

This is not to suggest that these students' existing worldviews are less valuable, or their experiences less prepatory, but we can extend experiences any students have had so far to allow them additional avenues to explore.

The sweeping arched windows and glass flowers of the Chihuly Garden and Glass Museum.


We can extend our role as educators to share a multitude of success options and the many pathways to achieve goals. Our communities can assist us.

Schools should include opportunities for all students to see diverse life options. College and career exposure can begin with getting to know teachers and the different paths the adults in their lives have taken.  Programs like Xello can provide information about a variety of careers and colleges based on a student’s interests. Many young people don't recognize the benefits of finding a good fit for higher education and/or career training. It is essentially the mission of schools to help students see beyond their known experience. 

Classroom visitors and mentors from the community, including business partners, as a part of an event like Spokane School District's Career Fair can be inspiring. On a smaller scale, a guest speakers program could be regularly scheduled. 

Field trips can be an excellent way to expose students to others’ work and lifestyles and engage their interest. Clubs and specialty classes can give students a chance to discover aptitudes, like coding or musical composition.

Yakima Town Hall sponsors, like the Sundquist Foundation and Virginia Mason Memorial, have been providing tickets to local schools so that students can hear diverse topics from renowned speakers. In October my students were able to attend a lecture by Edith Widder, respected scientist and oceanographer. My students learned about bioluminescence and the creatures that live deep in the ocean. Afterwards, we held a lively Socratic Seminar discussing exploration and courage, as well as the effects of climate change and pollution on our oceans. Many of my students have never seen the ocean. They learned about a cool field of study and new career possibilities.


It is not uncommon for people of any age to avoid pursuing their dreams because of a sense that they are inadequate or incapable. It is important daily work for teachers to help students see their abilities and encourage them that effort will bring positive results. Contemporary research shows us that motivation and engagement are ramped up when students see that their efforts are bringing success. (Hence, the joy of video games!) Conversely, where students see themselves as failures, they can hardly be expected to enthusiastically participate in making what they see as a futile effort.

We are seeing many students who are exhibiting the effects of trauma. Schools can best address students’ sense of efficacy by creating a safe environment to experiment and see their own progress. A great place to start building a positive school culture is through group study of Kristin Van Marter Souer and Pete Hall’s books, Fostering Resilient Learners and Relationship, Responsibility and Regulation.

“Empower. Never Disempower,” is the first principle of a trauma informed school. It should probably be the first principle in any teacher/student relationship. Our positive regard and sincere, powerful words can be a catalyst for supporting students who lack confidence.

A cheerful young woman surrounded by friends.


A compelling Ted Idea made me think about reconsidering how education is provided. The presentation was about focusing the school day on providing real world problem solving and work experience. Higher education has embraced the idea that young people benefit from internships and work experiences, while they are learning. 

For elementary and middle school students, where work leave is less practical, students' worlds can still be enriched with experiences that allow them to partner with adults and experience something they haven’t done.

Student with a backpack walking past leaves at Myron Lake.

Our students at the Discovery Lab School can easily walk about a mile to get to a local greenway near Myron Lake. In connection with field trips, they have created public service announcements and written poetry, measured the perimeter of leaves and pathways, considered the effects of sound across water, identified local plants and invasive species, examined water quality and participated in team building games. These opportunities came about because staff members were willing to collaborate and consider how the curriculum connects with life experiences.

Nearby schools of higher education, like Central Washington University, are often willing to partner with schools to create engaging experiences and mentor young people. Health Fairs and Science exploration activities with college student partners can be a great way to experience possible fields of study and work.

Two students on a hike in 1980 as part of the Unified Studies program at Orem HS, Utah.

I was fortunate to participate in a life-changing high school class over 30 years ago called Unified Studies. The visionary teachers who designed that program worked with community members to design instructional experiences that helped empower us to solve real world problems and experience a variety of aspects of the world through challenges and excursions. Perhaps not coincidentally, it is also where many of us formed lifelong friendships and attitudes towards learning and the world that would sustain us through life’s difficulties. My husband and I first became friends while participating in these experiences.


Success is often a matter of meeting or knowing the right people. In Alex Banyan’s book, The Third Door, he suggests that the success of many of the world’s most respected people, the ones who are known for being the best in their fields, came because they were persistent in the face of rejection, they had help from others, AND because they had people in their lives who cheered them on when the going got tough.

Sometime others just need to hear, “You’re special. You’re going to be okay. Your difficulties can be overcome. Great things are ahead for you.”

These are words I hope my students can tell themselves as they leave me and head off to an often icy world. I hope they are able to picture the possibilities and dance (or plod if necessary) towards their dreams.

  • Building Relationships
  • career and college readiness
  • Next Generation Science Standards
  • problem solving
  • SEL
  • Teacher Collaboration
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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.

Irene Smith Board

National Board Certified Teacher at Discovery Lab School

Irene Smith teaches middle school Language Arts and Social Studies to clever, interesting, and energetic students.She is married to her best friend, Brad, and they have five grown up children.She loves backpacking on the Olympic Peninsula, spending time with her grandchildren, reading and writing books, and going to Shakespeare plays.

Twitter: @TeachLearnHope
Website: irenesmith.org