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#AskExcelinEd: What are 5 Back to School Conversation Starters?


• Melissa Canney


Here’s an embarrassing confession. I did not know what engineers actually do until my 3rd year of college. No, I wasn’t a student who fell through the cracks. I did well in math and science and had ongoing support from my family, teachers and school counselorsI even went to a university with a world-renowned engineering programYet for some reason I believed engineering was an endless series of problem sets that nerdy men completed in dark cubiclesI had no idea that engineering is about creatively using mathscience and teamwork to solve problems that improve peoples lives.  

If students with resources and support like me have such profound misconceptions about viable career options, can you imagine the lack of information and misconceptions for students with limited to no advisement or resources? How will they identify and navigate career pathways that both interest them and lead to good jobs?  

School counselors, you say? Yes, they play a critical role but there are nowhere near enough counselors to provide the individualized advisement that every student deserves. In 2016-17, the national student-to-school counselor ratio was 455:1, nearly double American School Counselor Association’s 250:1 recommendation.    

Empowering Students Through Adult Conversation 

Being so deeply engaged in career pathway work nowI see how every single adult can – and should – play a role in helping students understand what people actually do in their careers. Students are empowered when adults engage with them, value their opinions and encourage them. The more often students engage with different adults about their future plans, the more likely they are to gather pearls of wisdom that resonate and help clarify their goals. Imagine if every adult in the U.S. committed to talking with one student per month about their future plans and goals! 


Conversation Ideas 

There are many ways to encourage student career planning – the key is starting the conversation and keeping it goingBack to school is a great opportunity to engage with students and have these conversations. Here are a few ideas to help you: 

  1. Ask lots of questions that inspire students to take ownership of their learning and goals. Let the student do most of the talking – after all, it’s his/her future. How and why follow-up questions typically result in more critical thinking and self-reflectionI don’t know’ responses provide a great opportunity to encourage students to do more research and/or self-reflection.
  2. Encourage and model goal-setting and self-reflection. Challenge students to set various goals (in and outside of schooland help them measure progress and refine ways to meet those goalsShare your own goals, progress, and course-corrections regularly to model these behaviors in a variety of contexts.
  3. Focus on skills and processes as much as results. Encourage students to reflect on their learning process and experienceStudents who can articulate not only what they did but how they approached an assignment (the content they found interesting, the skills they enjoyed demonstrating, and the parts of the project that was uninteresting or challenging) will be poised to use these insights as part of their career exploration journey.
  4. Draw connections between students’ experiences and future opportunities. Discuss different careers that require the knowledge and skills students use in the classroom and in extracurricular activities. Make sure to identify where students are developing employability skills like teamwork and communication – and different ways those skills are applied in students’ careers of interest. Conversely, students whose career path is undecided can start narrowing their interests by further investigating the careers that rely heavily on the skills and knowledge they most enjoy.
  5. Share your own story, especially challenges and failures. While career planning conversations should be very student-centric, providing examples of your struggles and solutions helps students understand that career planning and self-reflection is an ongoing and iterative process that lasts a lifetime, not a one-time activity. Sharing challenges also prepares students to navigate the inevitable disappointments or setbacks without becoming paralyzed by failure. 

How Everyone Can Play a Role 

States and policymakers should support all stakeholders in fostering these life-changing conversations. They can provide easily-accessible tools and labor market data for educators, parents and community members. They can also support training for all educators to become savvy advisers. Most importantly, they can increase awareness and elevate these conversations as a critical part of a statewide education and workforce development strategy.  

Educators can integrate these conversations as part of lesson plans or classroom culture, and family/friends and community members can empower students in the course of daily life. Schools and districts can foster partnerships with local chambers and employers to provide both opportunities to learn about and engage in career opportunities, such as work-based learning. 

Share Your Story 

How do you help the student(s) in your life develop skills and goals they need to achieve their dreams? Let me know your ideas or stories at Melissa@ExcelinEd.org or @MelissaCanney on Twitter. 


About the author


Melissa Canney

Melissa@ExcelinEd.org

Melissa Canney is the Director of Innovation Policy at ExcelinEd. She previously served as the Executive Director of Divisional Operations and Communications in the Division of College, Career and Technical Education at the Tennessee Department of Education. Melissa’s experience in Tennessee included policy analysis and implementation, communication strategy development, grant management and data analysis related to college and career readiness. A Vermont native, Melissa earned a B.A in Sociology from Stanford University and an M.P.P. in Education from Vanderbilt’s Peabody College. She lives in Nashville, Tennessee with her dog Moxie.