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Helping Teens Discover Their Purpose: A Q&A with Science Leadership Academy at Beeber's Mary Beth Hertz

Studies indicate that when young people discover a sense of purpose, they experience elevated levels of happiness, enhanced academic achievement, and greater resilience. Moreover, this heightened notion of purpose serves as a North Star, aiding teens in effectively navigating life's transitions.


See our Classroom Tool for teaching purpose below!


Science Leadership Academy at Beeber in Philadelphia is doing innovative work in helping their students tap into their purpose. We caught up with Mary Beth Hertz, Art & Technology Teacher and Partnership Coordinator at Science Leadership Academy at Beeber and founder of Walkabout Philly, to discuss teaching purpose in the classroom.

MUG: Why do you think it’s so important for students to find their purpose? What impact does that have long term? Your purpose is your compass. Without it, you are on a conveyor belt with no direction and it can be hard to know what decisions to make and to do what makes you happy (in life, not just career) if you don't understand yourself first. I experienced this in high school as an academically accomplished student who had been pushed along on a conveyor belt doing what seemed to be what everyone expected me to do, but not really understanding what I wanted to do.


It took attending an alternative senior year program called Walkabout to help me find my agency, my voice, and my confidence through real-world, purpose-driven experiences. And yet, even as an adult, I still struggle with those same feelings of being pushed along, and need to stop and be intentional and think intentionally about how the choices I make tie back to my purpose.


MUG: What changes/impacts have you seen in your students when they uncover their purpose?


The first thing I notice when I see students who are on the path to discovering their purpose and have nearly arrived is a sense of agency — that they have control over the choices they make in their lives and what they choose to do in their lives.


I've seen this with one of my advisees who struggled academically and struggled to stay motivated and focused. This past summer, he visited family Ghana and had an eye-opening experience around entrepreneurism and building his own tech-based company. This year, he is excelling in his Computer Science course and I convinced him to apply for an entrepreneurship program that meets after school. Over the last few months, as he has attended the program and has been able to build on small successes, his academics have improved, as have his focus and drive. He has asked to shadow a software engineer and is motivated to learn more about what it means to do that work for a living as a business owner. I have seen his confidence blossom and with each success, he feels less and less beaten down and overwhelmed. It's been a beautiful thing to witness and I am extremely proud of him. He now has a purpose, something to motivate him and drive him toward his goals.


See our Classroom Tool for teaching purpose below!

MUG: What would you tell other educators who are beginning or approaching this kind of teaching?

Before we can do this work with students, we need to do the work ourselves. We should think about the overlap of our strengths and our passions and what our own purpose is before we ask young people to do this work. Ninety nine percent of schools are not set up with systems that support students in discovering their purpose. This work has to do with what we prioritize in schools. It's also important to recognize that apathy and disengagement can often be an indicator that a student doesn't have a light inside pushing them — that they don't feel agency in their lives.


It's also important that we reflect on our own lives and who and what gave us a spark. Consider:

  • At what point did we find our purpose?

  • What were the conditions and the context for that discovery and how can we replicate that for our students?

This approach can mean centering this work as part of the curriculum or carving specific time out during the day. However, if that is not an option, it's important to have these conversations with students and to help them verbalize what strengths they have, what they love to do, and how those overlap. It's also important to understand that this work will be harder for some students than others and this work is ongoing. 


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