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‘Adulting’ 101: Preparing Students for College and Careers by Helping Them Figure Themselves Out

‘Adulting’ 101: Preparing Students for College and Careers by Helping Them Figure Themselves Out

Here’s what this morning looked like for me: I sit in my office in my quiet house, while a college friend and his sons sleep in my guest rooms. I drink my coffee and lament that I am not 18 anymore, and try not to think about the aftereffects I’m feeling from having stayed up late pretending that I am.

I loved college. I have a Bachelor of Arts degree in Art History from Mary Washington College and I sincerely enjoyed earning that degree. In my classes, the lights would go down, the projector would flick on and I got to explore the lives and circumstances of individuals and civilizations around the world and across time. However, making my way into the real world was a difficult transition; I quickly realized my 4-year degree in Art History didn’t leave me with outstanding job prospects, and I was also not ready to give up the unique macrocosm that was college life. I loved that life!

I bring this up because part of that late-night conversation with my friend and his family the previous night was about the lives we lead as college kids, the things we learned and didn’t learn those four years, and what we wish we could do over.

I’ve already mentioned that I loved college, and I was good at being a college student, but I am not sure that what I took away with me after graduation was really rooted in my academic degree. Instead, the most meaningful pieces of the whole experience were learning who I am and who my posse is. I am pretty sure that is not the goal of a BA, but it is the goal of adolescence.

As educators, we have the daunting responsibility to prepare our students for life after high school; for some that is higher education and for others, it’s not. Teaching students academic skills like how to take notes, listen and read critically, and string together a coherent sentence are certainly important, but so are those much more ambiguous ‘soft skills’—all of those simple but oh-so-complicated intangibles that lately get referred to as “adulting”. College, where students are asked to navigate crowded dorms, random roommates, unstructured schedules, and finals week deadlines, is in theory the low-stakes training ground to build these skills. But in reality, it’s not that simple.

I myself was fortunate—my undergraduate degree wasn’t something that caused me financial anxiety (my parking tickets did that). But for a majority of today’s youth, college is a significant financial burden and concern. I am not at all sure that I would have had the same positive, productive college experience I did if I’d also had the pressure of a six-digit debt looming over it. Programs and initiatives to offer ‘free college’ are more and more frequently being floated as the answer to this challenge, but there are lots of unanswered questions around who these programs can service and what happens to the faculty salaries, academic standards, and facilities at the colleges and universities that offer them.

These big sticky questions leave me wondering—would my undergraduate career spent learning where the best places to be seen are and who to see them with have been worth the expense of a such a debt? But, if I skipped that college experience of figuring myself out, would I actually have been ready and able to build the fulfilling career I have?

Evolving the high school and post-secondary experience for today’s students and society won’t be easy, and we can’t make it happen overnight. But, as educators, how can we take steps to make sure our high school students are equipped for the nebulous work of ‘adulting’? Beyond mastery of standards and career exploration, what can you do to help prepare them? How can you work to equip them with the skill sets they will need to learn continuously and take on challenges and opportunities that we can't yet even imagine? Helping kids ‘figure themselves out’ in this way may not be in your job description, but it’s certainly a day-to-day reality for educators in all kinds of roles. Here are a few tips to help.

Teach Tolerance

Each one of us was raised seeing the world through different lenses. We all carry very personal histories and experiences as we craft our own stories—our identities, our contexts, our cultures, and our dreams. If we can recognize that there is a sameness to our stories while simultaneously celebrating the differences, we will disrupt the system as it is now.

Prioritize Collaboration

The not-so-simple art of ‘getting along’ is critical to functioning in all kinds of  situations, whether that be living with roommates or working as part of a team. True collaboration is about much more than just proximity. Spending time teaching students how to collaborate will positively impact learning and support success outside the classroom. Whether tackling group projects in college courses, facing the challenges of communal living, or dealing with the drama of a workplace, truly respecting other points of view and working with all kinds of people and their lenses maximizes students’ potential for success.

Evaluate Information

In today’s information-packed and politically charged world, understanding how to distinguish what is accurate and what is questionable is an essential skill. Teaching multiple resources, viewpoints, and opinions is not just an approach for English class. Critical thinking refers to the analysis of facts to form a judgment, and it must be incorporated consistently throughout the curriculum. Critical thinking is self-directed, self-disciplined, self-monitored, and self-corrective thinking. It is not just conviction of belief, but confidence that these thoughts are grounded in something real. It is the ability to analyze information objectively and make a reasoned judgment.

Maximize Strengths

If a student understands HOW they learn, they can maneuver material and learning in a way that accentuates their strengths. They can advocate for themselves and their needs. They can produce their best work and they can follow a path that builds on skills and interests. Developing self-awareness can help students avoid the pitfalls of random exploration. (For example, myself taking a political statistics class or working a job in a lab— two things not in my strengths or my interests)

Focus on Practical Application

There is value to being driven crazy by a student asking ‘why’? Celebrate that! Too often, as educators we fall short in the process of connecting academic standards to everyday life. Yes, staying on track with your curriculum is a hard enough task as it is. But, by making it a priority to incorporate real-world examples and modern problem-solving approaches, you can help transfer school learning to real-life situations. When students ask about the “why”, they are helping you find  connections.

Embrace Failure

I fail all the time—sometimes just in my own mind, and sometimes spectacularly with great fanfare and a smattering of applause. I would love to say I learn from every failure, but it is probably more accurate to say I learn from most. Teaching students the art of failing gives them that opportunity to lean into their (inevitable) mistakes and fail not only fast but forward. There is no shortage of articles, research, and blogs on the topic of embracing failure—believe them.

Develop Navigation Skills

All things must be learned, and that learning is always a process. So, focus on the practical skills that enable students to engage in this ongoing learning—things like being able to read maps on their smartphone apps, how to follow a metro, bus or subway line, or how to work through assembly instructions. Teaching students how to navigate complicated processes, from where to begin, to how to break those processes down into manageable parts, are soft skills critical to most aspects of “adulting”. This sits comfortably with other soft skills like confidence and failure. Knowing that taking on these massive tasks begins with the first step allows for the students to tackle projects that before may have seemed unmanageable.

Take the Fear Factor Out of Public Speaking

Effective public speaking and communication is an important career skill, and an intimidating one. Helping students become strong public speakers means not just forcing them to recite from note cards held in sweaty palms, but how to communicate to different audiences, how to build strong arguments, and how to listen. Focus on helping students learn how to be passionate about their ideas while communicating them in a coherent and intellectual way.

It’s All About Confidence

This one is not an easy task, but it’s so critical. Confidence is a slippery slope. It is not just understanding that you are a valued member of the human race and have something to offer, but recognizing that the same is true of everyone around you. Strength of personality and a moral compass can provide a path to confidence that won’t roll over another, but those attributes aren’t built overnight. Focus on celebrating students’ successes—even in the smallest terms—to gradually develop that foundation of confidence that will help them in all facets of adult life.

Don’t Forget About Health and Wellness

Again, not an easy task. Being able to eat right, get enough exercise, and be attune to your own emotional needs are more than simple, cliché statements, they are learned processes that need to be taught. Of course, full responsibility to do that teaching does not lie with educators. However, educators can be role models who, by example, show students the power of empathy in relationships. It is the teacher who leads students to care for the feelings of others in the classroom. And, as teachers model how to be positive when learning, students mirror those optimistic, confident, and effective learning behaviors.

This list was brought to you by my college buddy Ian Burris, his college-age son Sam, Sam’s friend Isabelle, and Ian’s not-quite-college-age kid Jack, all of whom sat at my kitchen table and told me what they wish they had been taught. I hope you can see your own students in their insights.

Looking for more ideas to help your students understand themselves? Social and emotional learning (SEL) approaches can be a great starting point. Check out this blog post on Social and Emotional Learning In Practice to find out more.

winnie.oleary's picture

Winnie O’Leary has spent over 25 years in education, as a classroom teacher, school board member, a family advocate, special education teacher, curriculum writer and currently a Curriculum Manager for Edmentum. Her experiences have allowed her to work with districts all over the country where she finds something new and exciting every day. 

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