About 20 years ago, my sister called me and asked if her daughter could job shadow me to fulfill a graduation requirement. Hopefully, I hid my surprise. After all, I was a high school principal. I could not imagine that any high school student, ever, in the history of mankind, dreamed of being the principal. I certainly hadn’t dreamed of being a high school principal, and I was one. Being a principal never crossed my mind, in fact, until my husband remarked one day, “You should be a principal.” To which I quickly replied, “Are you kidding me?! No one wants to be the principal.” Did he even know me? Apparently, he did. You can imagine my angst when I had to admit he was right, and tell him I was going to graduate school.
As to my niece, I said, ‘Yes, of course, you can shadow me”. I thought it would be fun to have her job shadow me. I knew it would be fun to spend the day with her. When the day finally came, she spent the night at our house and went to school early in the morning with me. That alone should have warned her off the job. It was about a 20-mile drive, and we chatted along the way. I remember nonchalantly saying, “So, you want to be a principal.” If she did indeed want to be a high school principal, I didn’t want to discourage her with my incredulous tone. She remarked, in the way only a teenager can, “Yeah, that, or a dental hygienist. I haven’t decided.” I chuckled to myself thinking that neither sounded like much fun, if you were 17 years old, in my opinion. Then I thought, those two professions couldn’t be more different. Oh, to be a teenager. A time when everything is a very real possibility. The sky’s the limit. A time when you have shed the childish dreams of wanting to be a superhero or professional athlete or ballerina for the more likely, albeit disparate, options: principal or dental hygienist.
She spent the whole day with me. I can’t recall all that happened, but I imagine it was a day in the life of a high school principal: visiting classrooms, talking to students, dealing with some thrilling operational issue (translated: someone is in my parking spot!), meeting with parents, doing paperwork, dealing with discipline, going to meetings, changing the world one kid at a time. Riveting stuff for a 17-year-old. Of course, she was seeing high school, for the first time, from my perspective, not that of a student. At the end of the day as we drove home, I asked her, “OK. So, what’s the verdict? Are you going to be a high school principal?” She did not miss a beat, “Oh, heck no.” She laughed, not derisively, but more like ‘you must be crazy’. Hopefully I hid my disappointment. I asked, “So, you are going to be a dental hygienist then?” She thought about it a moment and then replied, “I don’t know. But your job is really hard.” (Update: She didn’t end up being either, but is gainfully employed in a career she is very good at.) She was right. Being a high school principal is the hardest job I have ever had. I didn’t mind the challenge though, because I loved the job. I loved almost everything about it, even the hard stuff. (Maybe not staying up until 1 am on prom night, but that’s more about my internal clock than anything else.) It was purely luck, though, that I loved it. If you think about it, I jumped into graduate school, with a considerable price tag, based on a belief that I would be a good principal and I would like being a principal.
College is expensive. Though I think it is money well-spent, all post-secondary training is expensive. While I don’t think you have to know for sure what you want to do with your life at 18 years old. I think you owe it to yourself (and anyone who is helping pay your tuition) to explore what different careers entail. More and more, kids are doing internships, apprenticeships and job shadowing before they start their post-secondary training. Frankly, I feel blessed that my child is in a school district that is committed to connecting students with internships. My daughter is in her 4th internship experience in physical therapy and sports medicine. She has never been more excited about her learning. Even though she has had some wonderful classes with engaging teachers, her internship experiences of hands on, deep learning have been the most transformational learning experiences she has had. I am so grateful to the adults who have made this possible and mentored her. The physical therapists, softball coach and counselor, who made these possible, have quite literally changed her life. Listening to her talk, fast and loud and animated, about some amazing experience she had that day is so wonderful. Listening to her fluently use the language of the profession she hopes to have some day makes my heart sing. More important than the learning itself is learning that she does, in fact, have the aptitude and passion to pursue this career. It is about learning what you will actually do in that profession on a daily basis and, knowing that you not only can do it, but you want to do it. When she started, she thought she only wanted only to work with athletes. I think her experience, with so many different kinds of physical therapy patients, and her realization of how rewarding it is to help someone heal and grow, has expanded her world.
It seems that sometimes in life we just jump in because of how we imagine something is going to be without really doing any research or exploration. We have an idea of what we want to do and we commit. Sometimes we find success. Sometime we abandon the idea altogether. Where college and careers are concerned, I think it is an expensive proposition to jump in without exploring both your personal characteristics and the characteristics of the job. There are so many medical careers, for example, if you like science. If you are not a people person, however, you might want to steer away from nursing into, say, pathology. I have said it before and I will say it again. This process is not about finding a career you can fit yourself into. It is about finding a career that fits you. No matter how much you love animals, if you are afraid of swimming, being a marine biologist might not be for you. Trying out a career through a job shadowing experience or an internship is as much about learning what you need in a job, as it is about learning what the job will require from you. Finding out something is not ‘your thing’ is not a failure. It is information. Important information that can lead you to a happy, fulfilling life. The fact is that our lives contract or expand in relation to the beliefs we have about what we can and should do. We should give ourselves permission to try something out, regardless of our age, our past experience, or our image of who we are right now. We should be open to the possibility that it will be ‘our thing’. We should not condemn ourselves when we abandon something that just isn’t ‘our thing’. I know there is the perfect career for everyone. We just have to give it a try. What do you have to lose really?
Me circa 2003, doing some riveting principal-ing.