Empowering Futures: A Guide for Educators in Supporting Student Career Exploration

14 Dec, 2023 | Content for Educators

Last week, we were delighted to host Valerie Sutton as part of our OxBright Heads of Futures webinar series for Career Leads and those involved in shaping careers education in schools around the world. Valerie is Chief of Workforce Navigation and Transformation at Exponential Changemakers, and former Head of Careers at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education (GSE).

This article aims to pull out the most relevant details and advice that Valerie shared with educators, and you can watch the full recording here of her conversation with Ameya, our Head of Education and himself a graduate of Harvard’s GSE.

Navigating the Career Landscape

During the webinar, Valerie leant on her personal experience of iterating her own role throughout her career, in order to find work that felt most closely aligned with her goals and values.

Despite what many headlines would have you believe, job hopping is not a new phenomenon invented by Gen Z – career paths have always had an element of dynamism and, as a field or industry changes, so too must the roles taken up by the workforce.

As educators working in the careers space, it’s up to us to encourage and facilitate students as they explore the various interests they have, and to encourage long-term thinking that can incorporate each of these interests, rather than attempting to funnel young people into choosing a single career for life.

Career Development Approach

One of the core takeaways from the webinar was Valerie’s Career Development Approach, and the ways it can be implemented within the existing framework of careers education in your school.

We understand that resourcing and time allocations are often two of the largest challenges careers departments face, which is one of the reasons this suggested framework is so useful. It can be applied to maximise the value of your existing strategies, and works just as well in a presentation to the year group as it does in a 1:1 conversation.

So, what are the core tenets of the Career Development Approach?

1. Mission alignment

Allowing students time and space to identify their personal values, ideally before any other careers education even begins, is an incredibly effective way of empowering young people to take control of their futures.

Nobody wants to wake up at 6am every day for 50 years to work a job they hate, or that goes against their personal values. Educating students about what mission alignment is, and how they can identify their own priorities, will build an incredibly strong foundation for future careers growth.

As Valerie highlighted, this is also a great way into careers discussions with younger age groups, as it’s never too early to begin this kind of self-discovery.

2. Skills and knowledge development

Once students have an idea of their core values and the types of careers or industries that might be well-suited to these, they can begin to build relevant skills and read around related topics.

Depending on where your students currently are in their journey, it’s worth emphasising the importance and value of transferable skills, rather than encouraging too specific a focus early on. Examples of these skills could include critical thinking (more on this later), flexibility and resilience, or more practical skills such as public speaking and organisation.

3. Life needs

This one might be trickier to approach with a younger group of students, as they may not yet be aware of many of the life needs they’ll develop later on, but it’s still worth introducing high school students to the concept as they begin to think about careers.

Life needs cover a lot of ground; here are just some examples:


  • Geography – students might be tied to areas due to family, visa requirements or cost of living
  • Minimum salary
  • Benefits – particularly important in countries such as the US
  • Identity needs – these could include workplaces with prayer or contemplation rooms, equal opportunity champions, or LGBTQ+ friendly employers

4. Work Culture

Equipping students to evaluate work culture in any given setting might be the single most influential thing you can do for the young people you work with. Toxic work environments bleed into almost every other aspect of life, and the effects of a negative culture can be severe and long-lasting.

In addition to basic requirements, such as respect amongst the team, honouring days off and downtime, and opportunities to progress within specific firms, students should consider levels of autonomy and intellectual challenge within the sector or role as a whole.

The Reality of “Follow Your Passion” Advice

Variations of old adages like “follow your passions and the money will come,” are something I’m sure we’ve all been confronted with at various points of our professional journeys. Anyone who has tried, in earnest, to follow this kind of advice will more likely than not tell you it doesn’t work.

That’s not to say we’re all doomed to work in sectors that we don’t feel passionate about, however. Instead, we should be encouraging young people to critically assess their own interests, and decide whether they’d like to pursue a career in it, or reserve it for post-work relaxation.

Adapting to Change: AI and Careers

Many of the questions we had from attendees during the webinar related to artificial intelligence and the sense that it’s difficult to provide careers advice with long term value when the world of work is evolving so rapidly and in such unpredictable ways.

Valerie eloquently covered the topic of generative AI and its likely impacts on the workforce, emphasising that it’s unlikely to take over human careers entirely. Instead, today’s teenagers should get comfortable with skills such as critical thinking, problem-solving and creativity, as these are likely to become increasingly important in the coming decades.

Finally, it’s important to acknowledge the advent of new careers as AI continues to expand, in fields such as AI ethics, as well as researching, monitoring and policing the expansion of technology. In particular, the legal opportunities that will arise are worth considering in your lesson plans.

The Significance of Meaningful Work

As our Career Report shows, students today care more about the impact of their work – in social, environmental and governmental terms – than any other factor influencing their job choices.

This means they need access to careers education with a similar focus. The Career Development Approach pays dividends in this respect, and can form the basis of more personalised support in this area too. 

Generally, we all derive meaning from work, and our jobs take up a sizeable chunk of our lives, so ensuring the careers young people pursue align with their values and identities is paramount.

Screenshot of Valerie and Ameya's Zoom conversation

Practical Steps for Educators

So, what can you as an educator actually do, in addition to weaving these priorities and philosophies throughout your careers teaching?

Valerie helpfully left us with four key ways you can set your students up for career success, regardless of their field of interest:

1. Conduct informational interviews

In addition to any practice employment interviews you might be conducting, you could also implement informational interviews, where you and your colleagues discuss things like the Career Development Framework above with students individually.

Careful questioning on a student’s priorities and interests will help them to understand their motivations better, and will enable you to share informed, relevant opportunities and information with them.

2. Match students with professionals in their chosen fields

Using your existing alumni network, as well as current parents and any other contacts you have, you’ll be surprised to find how many different industries and sectors you’re able to offer mentoring opportunities in.

Valerie’s top tip for continuing to build this pool over time is setting up a LinkedIn page for your school, which will enable current and previous students to add you to their own profiles. You can then search by school, and reach out to potentially helpful contacts.

3. Guide students in targeted outreach and effective communication

Students who are able to target their outreach for both mentorship and shadowing opportunities, and future employment opportunities, and communicate effectively with those who respond, are far more likely to access careers that align with their interests and values.

From providing outreach templates to running assemblies on professional email etiquette, you’ll be able to build your students’ skills and confidence so they’re ready to enter the world of work by the time they leave your classroom.

4. Forge partnerships between your school and local or related industries

Where possible, it can be really valuable to build partnerships with local companies, or firms that your current students’ parents work at, for example. The fruits of these partnerships could vary from having a pool of volunteers to conduct practice interviews, to a local law firm being willing to host a day’s worth of shadowing for interested students.

Be as creative as you can, and you’ll maximise the opportunities your students have access to and, ultimately, equip them for future success.

Valerie’s webinar offered a huge range of exciting and actionable information for careers leads, so do give the recording a watch and let us know what your key takeaways are! We hope to see you in the LinkedIn network soon.


By Sophie Parker

Our Head of Content, Sophie, is responsible for our blog and our resources. She graduated from University College London, where she read English. In addition to her content work, Sophie volunteers with several charities, supporting children’s literacy with 1-12 year olds, and representation in schools for students aged 11-18.

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