Wednesday / May 22

Protecting Student Aspirations: Preventing Adults from Creating Obstacles

student aspirations

Contributed by Dave Nagel

Part 7 in an 8 part series:

In our previous 6 installments, we have taken readers through examples students in three of the four quadrants of Dr. Russ Quaglia and Dr. Michael Corso’s Aspirations Framework™, as well as strategies to help move them closer to aligning their current actions and work in school to their future dreams and desires—Their Aspirations. We provided examples for how to identify and support the hibernating students, who currently don’t possess any dreams for their future and aren’t applying any effort in their current schooling situation to develop any. We did the same for the perspiring students (working hard but not connecting effort to future goals and dreams), and the imagining student (talking and dreaming about their future, but doing very little to make their desires a reality).

student aspirations

Once students reach this level of awareness we need to protect them and keep them from drifting backwards.

We now move into looking at the upper right quadrant of aspiring students: students who have made the connections for how their dreams and desires will come to fruition through hard work and determination, and who are aligning current actions toward their desired future outcomes. It is critical that once students reach this level of awareness we as school teachers, counselors, and building level leaders protect them and keep them safe from drifting backwards or below to the other three areas that will limit both their drive and their potential.

Matt is a great student and well on his way to being successful after high school. He is sure to become an amazing graphic designer. He also knows he must be able to read critically and write articulately to gain access to opportunities to become the best graphic designer he can be. He loves to connect learning from one subject to another. Lately, he has struggled with seeing how he will be able develop either set of skills at his current high school. He complains to his parents (and counselor) that he feels he never gets to learn and go deep on a few assignments or projects because all of his teachers have very rigid deadlines for tasks and are often due all at the same time. When he asked one of his teachers if he could write a shorter essay (less than the required five pages), on the causes and results of the Vietnam War on American culture, and create a detailed graphic illustration that he would present to the class and field questions—his teacher said, “No, sorry, Matt; then everyone will want an alternative assignment.” Matt figured this would allow him to “kill two birds with one stone” as this was something he was working on in his graphic illustrations course. He told his mom, “the heck with trying to create something awesome—I will just play the game until I can get out of that school!”

Preventing Adult Obstacles

One of the ways aspiring students can be pulled off track is when we as teachers try to make our subject matter the most important to each and every student. As a former middle and high school teacher and administrator, and having worked in hundreds of schools across the United States, I can say firsthand this is much more prevalent at the 9-12 level. I heard a speaker make a statement one time that went something to the effect that elementary teachers love their students and secondary (high school) teachers love their subject matter! (And many college professors love themselves!). While we all giggle at this comment, many of us have no trouble seeing the unfortunate honesty of that statement in most of our 9-12 settings.

Think about what we ask our students to do every day in most American high schools. We ask them to have 6 to 7 different bosses and to toil under one supervisor for 50-60 minutes where it is demanded their work be the sole focus and priority. We then provide them a 6 to 7 minute break where students are expected to take care of any personal issues like using the restroom, gather needed materials for their next boss (different from any of the previous four), conduct any networking and make any/all personal connections they need to, before reporting (on time or else) to their next chief—who will want 50-60 minutes of blood, sweat, and tears related to their content area focus. The bosses rarely if ever invest any time to help the learner (employee) try to make connections about their work from their other bosses to theirs. They don’t collaborate with the other managers (teachers) about what they are focusing on to learn how to best integrate their learning infrastructure. This all occurs often under the premise that we are helping students prepare for the real world—which will likely have no resemblance to the world they are being asked to live in currently in their high school. The following action and set of strategies are ones schools can implement immediately—without needing an overhaul to the entire scheduling system they have in place.

Action: Get Over Ourselves (And OUR Content)

There are many steps schools can take to prevent students from falling away from their aspirations. First, teachers have to realize that perhaps when students exhibit significant effort and depth in another course or discipline, we cannot take it personal. Next, we must eliminate the use of overly rigid deadlines for work submission without considering; let alone asking students what other deadlines they are currently under for other subjects. When we push students to “meet our deadline or else” (not accepting late work submissions or only doing so with huge grade penalties), we likely are perpetuating the kind of behaviors that are the antithesis of helping develop student aspirations. We are encouraging students to provide surface level effort in the name of getting it done and completed on time to avoid the stick.


The following are strategies schools, PLCs, and individual classrooms can implement to support and protect students’ aspirations:

  • Budget time daily and weekly for classroom discussion and dialogue to allow students to share what specific connections they are making from one class to another. This will not only allow them to process and form relationships and context in their minds from one subject to another, it will also help teachers become listeners and engage in the mind frame of dialogue not monologue (Hattie, P. 172)
  • Provide students a chance to earn points, marks, additional weight for assignments and tasks from other classes that illustrate understanding and mastery of content standards in yours (*2 for 1 is a way of life in the real world).
  • Develop contracts with students to let them determine some of the how they will be able to meet requirements in your class without sacrificing their passion and learning in another. If some of your students are writing a detailed extensive essay in another class, perhaps instead of writing one in yours, they have the option to develop an audio-visual presentation of the same concept and skill demonstration.
  • Create a system within your school to determine what major tasks and content topics students are completing in other subject areas.**


**Authentic Example: Under the direction of Dr. Oliver Wallace, Lead Secondary Instructional Leadership Director for Tulsa Public Schools and former principal at Central High School in Tulsa, teachers would start the year by making charts of what major topics would be covered in their course by quarter. These were placed on large chart paper and teachers conducted a gallery walk to view what their peers were addressing and when to look for connections to their own subject matter. Teachers added sticky notes where they saw connections to back to their subject matter. A key point to remember is that in any size high school that doesn’t have true small learning communities, there is little chance teachers will have all of the students of a teacher of another subject matter at the same time—but they will have some. Dr. Wallace was recently quoted during a phone interview: “By creating a system of smaller learning communities that supported students’ interests, we helped maximize our students’ true potential.”

student aspirations

“By creating a system of smaller learning communities that supported students’ interests, we helped maximize our students’ true potential.”

  • Use PLC time to enhance the three R’s (Review, Rearticulate, make it Real): Quaglia and Corso make mention of several schools they worked with where teachers would come together periodically (weekly) in collaborative settings and review the upcoming content they were going to be teaching. They would then individually share with their students. The students were then charged with adjusting (rearticulating) the material in a more student-friendly way. Finally, the students again were charged with making it Real by “either connect(ing) the week’s learning to lessons from another class or to real-world experiences, jobs, or news events” (Quaglia & Corso, P. 148).

These are just a few strategies schools can apply immediately to prevent students like Matt from falling away from their aspirations because of being asked to focus on everything with the same effort and zeal—which only leads to students perspiring away opportunities to augment and fulfill their aspirations.

In our 8th and final installment, we will look at how schools must also ensure students are protected from other students while chasing their aspirations.


Hattie, J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers: Maximizing impact on learning. New York, NY. Routledge.

Quaglia, R., & Corso, M. (2014). Student Voice: The Instrument of Change. Thousand Oaks, CA. Corwin Press.

Dave Nagel

Dave Nagel has over 18 years of successful experience helping schools grow and develop their staffs to best meet student needs. For over a decade, he has served as a middle and high school biology teacher and building level administrator. He has also worked as a professional developer, coach, and keynoter for the past twelve years. Schedule an on-site or virtual consultation, seminar, or workshop with Dave Nagel today!

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