Student Engagement

Listening to Students Is a Key to Finding Their Purpose

A student’s far-fetched career choice leads a teacher to greater understanding of the ‘why’ behind it.

June 18, 2019
Taylor Callery / Ikon Images

In this EdSurge piece on helping students find purpose, Tim Klein, former director of school and community engagement at Medford High School in Massachusetts, shares the story of how patience and a penchant for listening can translate into critical insights about the lives and passions of students.

When a high school student named Marcus said his career goal was to become a professional video gamer, Klein didn’t scoff at this seemingly unrealistic choice. “When teens give seemingly fantastical answers, adults’ common response is to dismiss them, brushing off these goals as unmoored from reality,” he writes.

Klein thinks adults ought to pay attention and ask questions when students express even “outlandish or far-fetched” goals; the inquiry can yield more than simple insights into a student’s career preferences. Marcus wanted to become a gamer because of the isolation and bullying he experienced as a child. Gaming was initially an escape, but when Marcus saw a video of one of his gaming heroes talking about his own experience with bullying, the role model “made him feel he belonged.” 

Only by asking “why” was Klein able to decipher what made Marcus tick: helping others feel that they belong, often through the medium of video. With that insight, Klein advised Marcus on other college and career possibilities with the same purpose—colleges with strong video and communications programs, for example, and potential jobs “as a social worker, psychologist or middle school teacher.” The choices motivated Marcus. “The shift was profound; Marcus finished his senior year with the best grades of his life.” He went on to college where he is studying video production and psychology. 

Klein thinks schools too often ask “what” students are doing, and too often ignore the “why” behind their choices. By asking more questions of students—”What do they do for fun? What sports do they play? What music do they listen to? What are their hobbies?”—educators can open the door to student passions. “Follow a student’s interests,” he says, “And you’ll unlock the clues needed to understand their deepest, most intrinsic motivations and desires.”

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  • Student Engagement
  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • 9-12 High School

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