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Helping Students Build their Purpose: It may be the most important thing we do.

Helping Students Build their Purpose: It may be the most important thing we do.

Early in my career, I was a high school video production teacher.  It was a great experience.  I had wonderful students and absolutely loved my work in the classroom.  I often think back on those days in my current position as a school superintendent when I need to center my focus and nudge myself to push a little harder for change and growth to improve the student experience.

My thoughts always take me back to the many sparks I saw in my classroom as students discovered a new interest or talent.  They take me to the faces of the students who built their passions for communications and digital production – passions many of them still pursue even today.  I’m reminded of the excitement I’d see in the eyes of students who were given chances to be in New York City television studios, meet industry professionals and get real life work experiences.

I always wanted my class to be more than a curriculum.  I wanted it to be an opportunity for students to explore and discover.  I wanted it to be an experience.  I wanted students to learn skills they could take with them anywhere.  And perhaps most importantly, I wanted them to have fun.

Sure, not every student was a success story – and that still bothers me.  But, plenty were.  And for a handful, there was something more.  They built their purpose, and once they did, they never looked back.  It shaped the rest of their high school years, their college years and beyond.  

It was these early experiences in my career that established my belief in the importance of helping students build their purpose and passion.  And I see creating the environment for interest-based exploration to help students find purpose and passion as one of our core responsibilities in the education business.

Dr. Dhruv Khullar, a physician at New York-Presbyterian Hospital and a researcher at Weill Cornell Department of Healthcare Policy and Research recently penned a great piece for The New York Times titled, “Finding Purpose for a Good Life.  But Also a Healthy One.”  In it, he says, “Only about a quarter of Americans strongly endorse having a clear sense of purpose and of what makes their lives meaningful, while nearly 40 percent either feel neutral or say they don’t.” 

This is significant.  In his research, Khullar finds that purpose is not only important for a meaningful life, but also a healthy one.  The good news is that having (or not having) purpose is not fixed; rather it can be developed over time with intentionality.  And no age is too soon to start.


And this is where schools come in.  We have an obligation to help students build their purpose.  In the Mariemont City School District, our platform for this is called Warriors BEyond.  It’s a program that’s goal is to amplify the curriculum.  

Students across all grade levels can explore interests, experience careers, travel and even create their own curriculum in a non-graded, risk-free environment.  We intentionally create time for this during and after the school day.  And the feedback from parents and students has been tremendous.  Just the other day, a parent thanked me for creating these opportunities for her son and told me about his opportunity to explore the medical field through a hand-on experience the school provided – an opportunity that has accomplished just what we set out to do – given him his sense of purpose and a direction for tomorrow and beyond.

And in a time when the future of jobs and careers is somewhat uncertain and unknown, this sense of purpose may prove to be the most important thing we can give him.
Steven Estepp is the superintendent of the Mariemont City School District in Cincinnati, Ohio.