3 steps to cultivate hope and optimism for high school students this fall

Some of my most vivid memories of high school are not only of friends and favorite classes and getting my driver’s license. They are also of that nagging voice in my ear at every turn: “What are you going to do when you graduate?” And I wasn’t graduating in the midst of a pandemic. However unsure or scared I was can’t possibly compare to what young people are experiencing right now.

I’ll confess that I am now guilty of asking students that same loaded question myself, with good intentions but undoubtedly deserving of an eye roll or groan in response. Assumptions about the capacity of young people to have a firm grasp on their future plans have long been entrenched in our culture. For decades, it seems, we have sent a clear message: “If you don’t have a plan, something must be wrong.” But what if we shift our approach? Considering the average senior this year is likely to experience nearly half of their high school career in pandemic conditions, I believe we have a critical opportunity to shape their perspective about what is possible despite what they’ve endured.

Without redesigning your schedule, or even cutting into precious instructional time, consider these three relationship-building, outlook-improving strategies to support all your high school students, but particularly those on the brink of heading off into that “real world” we’re always telling them about.

1. Rebuild confidence in the face of uncertainty and volatility

Ever hear a teenager shout, “I just want to make my own decisions!”? Yep, thought so. Balancing the desire for independence and the need for guidance and support is just one of many tightropes young people walk as they transition to adulthood. Yet rarely has the whole world been so harshly reminded of how little control we sometimes have over our circumstances than in the COVID-19 era, making the transition to adulthood doubly challenging for teenagers.

[S]tudents are in dire need of rich, relevant information about the vast opportunities that await them after high school.

For many high schoolers, college admission or career goals may seem unattainable in the absence of opportunities to fulfill high expectations—self-imposed or otherwise—around sports, activities, even specific classes. Help students overcome anxiety or frustration by framing conversations around what they can control: effort, attitude, or even how to spend their time (news flash: TikTok will continue to exist even if they don’t check it every five minutes). Conversely, knowing how to identify areas that are out of their control can help relieve hidden pressure. For example, a teenager can’t control whether the SAT or ACT will be required by the college of their dreams or whether the pandemic numbers in their high school will cause another closure. So if a student’s goal seems daunting, help them see what is within their control and what is not.

It can also help students if you show them how to zero in on a step they can take right here, right now. Aiming to improve their GPA? How about they turn off their phone for one whole class period to ensure the utmost focus (and learning) in chemistry today? Aspiring to make the varsity basketball team even though the season is at risk of being canceled? They should practice those 20 free throws every day anyway, starting now, to ensure they’re ready, no matter what.

And the most important step in supporting your students so they can see the merit of setting and accomplishing micro goals in areas over which they have more agency? Celebrating! Honor reaching each and every one of those targets like it was the state championship win (or close to it, anyway). Your high schoolers may be beyond the sticker prizes they got as second graders, but they’ll probably still get excited about some cupcakes or streamers, a ridiculous paper crown (they’ll pretend to hate it, but they won’t) or, for a more subtle approach, a Post-it note on their locker or shout-out on social media.

2. Connect the classroom to the real world

I should preface this advice with a note: This is not a tutorial on how to host virtual collaborations with working professionals (I’m positive you are a master of leveraging technology to bring the outside world into your classroom by now!). Rather, think more about daily, simple, and highly impactful ways typical instruction can illuminate a sense of purpose for students experiencing hopelessness. When what they’re doing is clearly linked to life after graduation, many teens will feel more excited and engaged in the work ahead.

[R]arely has the whole world been so harshly reminded of how little control we sometimes have over our circumstances than in the COVID-19 era, making the transition to adulthood doubly challenging for teenagers.

A rich opportunity lies in likely just about every standard you teach. Articulation of the social-emotional skills embedded in them in particular can lead to students developing non-academic areas we know are in high demand by employers and colleges.

We still operate in an education system that provides breadth over specificity—and I will assert that there is value in this! I may have never solved any equations after my mandatory single college math course, but the problem-solving practices I learned in high school algebra most certainly informed my organizational thinking and systems-analysis abilities over the years. High-school me would never have known this, however, and it’s not exclusively a math phenomenon. Ever take a moment to infuse a group collaboration activity in class with a discussion on how you are constantly engaged in the same way with colleagues, a practice your success as a teacher depends on? How about asking students to identify pro-social behaviors demonstrated by a fictional character in a novel, TV show, or movie and connect their observations to careers that rely on those practices? (Hint: Knowing your students’ context and interests presents a perfect opportunity to draw personalized connections.)

Even before the pandemic, there were numerous reports of increased depression, apathy, and other mental health concerns in teens, including by the Pew Research Center. The pandemic has made things worse, according to research out of C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital in Michigan. We must help students recognize that there remains a bright future ahead. Further, they are going to be important contributors to that bright future because of their many talents, skills, and attributes. Whether they are designing a PowerPoint (I didn’t learn to make a PowerPoint until college, so they’re already ahead of my generation) or measuring potassium in a soil sample in biology, specifically affirming their ability to think critically, give and receive feedback, or any number of similar skills required for life after high school can help draw their attention to an exciting time ahead when they themselves will be the engineer or the business owner or the innovator of a future never before imagined.

3. Leverage simple practices and tools

The other day, a friend remarked to me how he was struggling to convince his son that there were colleges other than the Ivies. “He only knows about what he sees on TV or in the movies,” my friend confessed.

[S]pecifically affirming [students’] ability to think critically, give and receive feedback, or any number of similar skills required for life after high school can help draw their attention to an exciting time ahead.

At a time when opportunities to have representatives from colleges or the military visit high school campuses have all but disappeared, when career fairs have morphed into emails referring students to visit website databases, students are in dire need of rich, relevant information about the vast opportunities that await them after high school. Teachers, who better than you to offer a credible voice of insight in this area? You can begin by sharing your experiences and pathway: schools you explored and how you finalized your choice, what majors you considered, and feelings you had about your ability to succeed in college. Know someone who served in the military? Share how their service led them to a career path and the skills they gained. This isn’t a time to promote the value of any one pursuit over another, but to inform and generate understanding of the myriad ways kids can reach their dreams. This can be a critically important practice in settings where graduation rates are low or for first-generation college students, for example, where awareness of post-secondary pathways may be limited.

You can also show your students our College Explorer tool, which is open to anyone and hosts a wealth of information including financial aid details, popular majors, and employment outcomes. Whether you teach art history or algebra, you can ask your class to share their goals so you can better support them in reaching for their dreams.

Crush senioritis

Despite the excitement and energy for the start of a new school year, the frustration surrounding the constant shifts in mask rules, learning environments, social interaction guidelines, and the grim uncertainty about the months ahead can understandably be a heavy load for students. What we often jokingly refer to as the “senior slump” has always been associated with emotions around fear of the unknown, and this year we could see exaggerated symptoms. So seek opportunities—even small ones—to cultivate optimism and hope in the classroom. Model vulnerability and communicate your emotions, giving the students around you permission to do the same. It’s possible your students are arriving with lingering concern over grades that suffered during the last three semesters, deepening their worries that future opportunities will have slipped away. Remind them that their journey hasn’t ended. There is plenty to learn, plenty to accomplish, and many reasons to look forward to the future.


Build math confidence

Lots of kids dread math. You can help them love it. Get advice on how from our Teach. Learn. Grow. math experts in our latest ebook.


Blog post

For policymakers

There’s a lot policymakers can do to support schools during COVID-19. We talked with experts Evan Stone and LaTanya Pattillo about what to focus on during SY21–22.

Read the post


The ABCs of reading

Effective literacy instruction must rely on the science of reading and best practices in balanced literacy.

Learn more


Sign up for our newsletter and get recent blog posts—and more—delivered right to your inbox.