What is your Back-up Plan? Encouraging Students to Dream Realistically

By Sabrina (Bong) Bartels — During a psychology class during my undergrad, my professor asked us why we chose psychology as a major.

All of us had different answers: we wanted to help people, it was something we always found fascinating, we wanted to become psychologists and do research.

As we all chattered excitedly about what we wanted to do with our degrees, my professor gently interrupted us and said, “And what is your plan B?”


Plan B? Why in the world would we need a back-up plan?

We stopped talking and stared blankly at each other. One of my friends turned to me and whispered, “If I don’t become a psychologist, I have no idea what I’d do. It’s just not an option.”

My professor clearly saw our confusion. He smiled a little and explained that even though we knew what we wanted, circumstances could always change. Regardless of what we did, or the decisions we made, he wanted all of us to have a back-up plan, a Plan B, that we could fall back on. We spent an entire class period brainstorming what our back-up plan would be (for the record, if I did not become a counselor, I would either use my broadcasting degree and work at a television station, or I would be a writer. And if none of those worked out, I would probably try to go back to school and get a business degree.)

Looking back, that conversation was a very poignant one during my schooling. It made me realize that I could dream up any occupation I wanted, but that in the end, it was better to have a Plan B than to throw caution to the wind and put all my eggs in one basket. Ever since, I have always made sure to have a back-up plan.

To me, my professor (by the way, this awesome professor is Ed de St. Aubin; if you ever get a chance to take a class with him, please do!) presented the idea of a back-up plan perfectly. He didn’t tell us that our dreams were far-fetched, or unrealistic, even though some of them may have been. He encouraged our dreams, while simultaneously reminding us to be prepared for anything.

Working with middle schoolers, I have realized how delicate this conversation can be.

During my Career Pathways class that I teach, I have learned that almost every seventh grade boy wants to be one of two things: a professional athlete or a business owner. On the other hand, almost every girl in my class wants to be a singer, an actress, or a doctor. While I believe that every single one of my students can possibly achieve their dreams, I also want them to realize that some of their dreams will be very difficult to accomplish. Getting into the NBA involves more than just being able to play basketball. I can’t tell you how many times I have sat with students and talked about how certain colleges have specific academic requirements for athletes!

So during class, I always ask what their back-up plan is. And when they scoff at me, I remind them that, as a professional athlete, they may get injured. What would happen if they got a career-ending injury? For all my girls that want to be singers, what would happen if they suddenly became ill and their vocal chords were compromised?

Some students hate that conversation. But others really do take it to heart. They realize that some dreams are harder to achieve than others. And I have learned that I can still be a counselor who encourages her students to dream, but also reminds them of realistic expectations. It’s a tough lesson, but I think it will be worth it in the long run!

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