What Versus Who

Middle level students are increasingly introduced to discussions involving career and college exploration and delving into their passions and pursuits at an earlier age. They, along with advisers, teachers, and parents, are engaged in thought partnership around the commonly asked question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Arguably, it’s not an easy question for young people to answer, to be counseled through, or to continuously consider as a top-of-mind priority at this specific developmental stage. Educators are more proactively cascading these discussions earlier in the K–12 journey to support students’ runway into their high school endeavors, and they’re encouraging participation in college programs earlier in students’ K–12 experience. While this question (and these avenues) remain a steadfast way to think about the future, there is often a missed question for exploration for the middle level population. Perhaps an even more important question to begin any inquiry around career interests and life’s passions would be: “Who do you want to be?”

The latter question is important for any student wanting to learn more about shared values and the content of their character. Examples include citizenship, community engagement, leadership, responsibility, and integrity. These essential skill sets should be developed beginning in (if not earlier than) the middle level. The question “Who do you want to be?” serves as a simplistic way to introduce the idea of self-exploration. It serves to put students’ core selves before the wants of students to cement themselves into a career pathway. The baking in of this personal development, while at the same time being intentional about the classroom experience, creates a unique opportunity for teachers, advisers, and all educators to create a best-in-class experience for students in their schools—one that recognizes both academic and essential skill development as critically important for overall success.

More importantly, the question of “who” teases out the need for young people to understand the importance of social-emotional skill building and the access points available to them. Academic curriculum is helpful in aiding students to tap into developmental skill sets such as critical thinking and teamwork. Many schools are now including life skills-themed courses into the core curriculum. In concert with formal academic curriculum, it is often the more pointed co-curricular opportunities and experiences that add additional depth and texture to a student’s school and social experience. The out-of-the-classroom experiences can often be transformative for middle level students.

Transformative Engagement

There are various opportunities for this transformative engagement in middle level schools worth considering to ensure the learning of necessary and new skill sets. Many of these opportunities involve student leadership. Not only does this allow students the exposure to questions around what and who they want to be, but it also offers exposure to additional chances to learn and craft their own ideas of self. This discussion around “access points” or “touch points” is particularly important to consider when engaging in the building out of these opportunities for underrepresented student populations.

There are many students who self-identify as not having the appropriate access to after-school programs or supports, courses in their schools that teach these and other essential skills, etc. Students who are engaging in experiences with varied hardships and/or challenging life circumstances may be struggling to gain access to this “shadow” curriculum. That is, they may not have the same access to or visibility of opportunities in their communities that allow for the necessary learning of the essential life skills as their peers. This can be challenging to navigate.

Set Up for Success

For students to be successful, they need a forum for the strengthening of these skills in their schools that is committed to seeing through the stewarding of these opportunities. Inclusivity and representation are key and require educators to think intentionally about how to create varied experiences that serve all students. Some additional strategies in thinking through middle level student engagement include creating opportunities for parent engagement, direct mentorship opportunities, and the inclusion of community partners and community-based organizations to help to create added opportunities for all students.

Thankfully, there are myriad opportunities to meet students where they are and expose them to leadership and personal development at the middle level. Many of these opportunities exist on campus during the school day and during programs accessible to all students, such as student council and other on-campus student activities. Student council is a unique forum for students to become engaged in campus culture more broadly. It includes pillars specific to essential life skills, provides students with visibility into all of the co-curricular activities happening on a school campus, and provides an opportunity for national leadership engagement as well.

As a faculty member for the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) Student Leadership programs, I’ve had the pleasure of serving as a faculty member for the LEAD Conferences, which engage various Honor Society chapters and student councils nationally. The events provide great moments for reflection and great platforms for leadership. What I find most fascinating about the student conferences is the energy, inclusivity, and openness that students exemplify when they arrive. When engrossed in discussions around self, they often speak about how who they want to be has been central in understanding what they want to be and why. Both questions remain critically important. Which will you lead with when engaging with young people?


Andrea “Drea” Elzy, EdD, is director, postsecondary strategies at Thrive Chicago and serves as an education leadership and curriculum consultant for the NASSP Student Leadership programs.

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