Exploring careers in middle school

How one school tackles work-based learning

Work-based learning experiences are activities that involve actual work experience or that connect classroom learning to employment and careers. Through work-based learning experiences, educational programs become more relevant, rigorous, challenging, and rewarding for students, parents, educators, and businesses. These opportunities particularly help students make the connection between academic principles and real world applications.”

–Vermont Agency of Education

If you’re a student on the 8th grade team at Mill River Union High School in North Clarendon, Vermont, you’re leading the way in this arena: it’s tradition that every eighth grader at this school experiences a Career Exploration unit in the spring of their year.

Inventories and inquiry

Teachers at Mill River start the inquiry process with their 8th graders by administering personality and career surveys. Many free ones can be found online, but this one is particularly friendly to middle and high school students.

Students participate in the personality profiles to reveal their strengths and discover interests. Once students look at their personality type and work style preferences, they start to reflect and explore certain careers and areas of work. Screen Shot 2016-05-23 at 5.31.04 PM

Students research jobs and careers using online portals, such as the U.S. Department of Labor site. They search for necessary education, salary, and availability of jobs. Students use the US Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook  to research and record information including median income, current number of jobs, and the job outlook for this career.

Career Fair

career fair

In late April, Mill River 8th grade teachers host a Career Fair for their students. Attendance is mandatory, and students get the opportunity to speak with adults employed in more than 20 fields. The students s are able to casually interview at least three people they choose from a pool of 30 career presenters.

Job Shadow

The highlight of the unit is Job Shadow Day. On Friday, May 13, these hardy 8th graders go out into the real world and work at pre-schools, law firms, auto body shops, and in accounting offices. Coordination overhead for this day is enormous, but it’s something the teaching team tackles together. Every 8th grader will be visited and observed on-site by someone on the Mill River teaching team.

I was lucky enough to join one of them.

The Vermont Country Store

Even though I’ve driven past it hundreds of times, I had never stepped foot into the corporate offices of the Vermont Country Store in Manchester.

Once inside the building, I met up with Mill River math teacher, Richard Barker. Barker has been a middle school teacher for many years, and he’s an integral part of the planning and implementation of the Career Exploration unit. Of the job-shadowing experience Barker said,

“We are trying to connect what is happening in the classroom with things that are happening in the real world of work…all sorts of skills that they use in the classroom, we’re hoping that when we come here, they are going to see those skills in action.“

At the Vermont Country Store corporate offices, I met up with Mill River Union 8th grader Alex. Our first task? Chating with catalog designers about their products, talked art and graphic design for the catalog, and helped out for the apple pie and maple syrup photo shoots. This is work?! For these lucky employees, it is.

work-based learning

At the impressionable age of 14, Alex is interested in pursuits like art, photography, and graphic design. His day at VCS was expertly facilitated by a troop of employees tasked with giving him a taste of their work. Here is Alex and catalog designer Julie Iverson, with photographer Ken Burris in the background, talking about lighting and camera angles for the photo shoot.

After good times (and eating our subjects) in the studio, Julie handed Alex off to Senior Graphic Designer, Kim Edholm.

She tells him about her education, training (fine art and advertising), and path to this work. Kim generously shows us her current projects for the upcoming catalog, talks about where she finds inspiration (spoiler alert, it’s Instagram!) and describes her typical day. Like any curious child encountering something new and intriguing, Alex soaks it all up.


This Job Shadow Day is a brilliant project. Teachers at Mill River work hard for weeks and months to implement the unit — but the reward is the learning and engagement that I saw in Alex. He says,

“You can learn if you want to do something… find out what you really want to do in life”.

After all, that’s the endgame for our young adolescents and adults – to guide them towards their passions and goals.

One thought on “Exploring careers in middle school”

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