When I started blogging five years ago, I began by exploring the concept of “Emerging Adulthood” and tossed around terms like “the boomerang generation” and “Peter Pan syndrome”. I was looking at my peers — college graduates — who weren’t reaching recognized markers of adulthood until their 30’s, and it scared me. I explored a lot of reasons behind this phenomenon. I graduated college in 2008, so financial difficulties and lack of opportunity certainly played a hand, but the trend had already started before the economic struggle hit. I saw lack of initiative, a culture of complacency, too much focus on “following dreams” and not enough realistic pursuits of paying the bills, good jobs requiring higher levels of advanced degrees, and so on.
I saw a lot of problems before I’d ever heard “innovation” as an educational buzzword. I saw a system that focused more on identity explorations than it did on skill development. I saw grades failing to represent ability, and the grades mattered more than the skills. I saw intelligent, capable men and women moving back in with mom and dad while they tried to figure out what they wanted to do after they graduated, and I couldn’t help but wonder… What had they been doing during college if they still didn’t know?
It’s not their fault. I fell into a good career fit by blessed chance, not because of any specific guidance or direction from my educators. I thought I wanted to be an English teacher because I loved the content. Turns out, what I’m really passionate about is the students. While important, the content comes second to helping shape the lives of the kids who cross my classroom. But I learned that after graduation, when I was actually in the classroom, instead of creating hypothetical lesson plans for education classes. And even with that discovery, I still bounced around the country for years, and at age 32 I still don’t feel as if I’ve hit my professional niche. I have the husband, house, kids, and dog, but my career is still unsettled. (Full disclosure – that was partly by choice. I left a good job at 24 to follow my husband’s educational and professional pursuits.)
But the question remains… How many people get their degrees and then learn they’ve spent years and thousands of dollars on a degree in a field that isn’t the right fit for them? And then what do they do?
I see a lot of talk in the “innovating education” circles about technology, entrepreneurship, and the fast-changing world we live in. “We’re preparing kids for a future that doesn’t exist”, they say. And that’s true. But for me, it’s more than that. All our education system does right now is prepare young people for more academia. It doesn’t prepare them for “adult-ing” of any kind. So much so that my generation started using that term out of frustration.
We need to innovate education so that kids are comfortable taking initiative, seeking out responsibility and risk, and embracing skill-building experiences just as much (if not more) than pieces of paper with good grades on them. We need to stop talking about “work ethics” and show them what happens in life when they problem solve and work towards a solution. We need to bring value to what they’ve learned, practice collaboration, and give them the power to use all that technology at their fingertips not only skillfully, but also wisely.
What’s exciting to me is that after five years of actively asking questions, I’ve finally stumbled upon people who are not only asking similar questions, but are also doing something about it. I’m encouraged to see those leading by example and inspired to try what I can where I am.
The best lessons I’ve taught had little to do with English/Language Arts content. The content was the conduit for the discussions, but I’ve repeatedly seen that when I open up discussions about life outside of academics — future careers, individual strengths, and so on — that is hands-down the most engaged I ever see my students. They see the relevance, and they also see how little prepared they are for their own futures. And it scares them.
We need to innovate how we educate so that young people today can learn how to engage in adulthood, and I’m excited to see that it’s actually possible.