article banner

Career Café Conversations

By Kathleen Goodman | January 2018

article main image
The idea of the career café came to me after visiting a high school “coffee and conversation” program for students to chat informally about current events. There, students gathered in a small multipurpose room deep in conversation. I wanted to try it with my middle school students – I envisioned career conversations being conducted in a more relaxed setting where students could come and learn about careers of interest to them.

Developmentally, middle school students are in human development expert Erik Erikson’s “identity vs. role confusion” stage. They are wrestling with their sense of self and the formation of personal values and beliefs. This is a time that captures students’ excitement in conjunction with self-efficacy.

Year One: Harvest the Coffee Beans

Over the summer, I revamped my eighth-grade school counseling core curriculum to revolve around these three tenets:
  • Knowing myself as a learner
  • Knowing myself as a friend
  • Knowing myself as a worker
Our year concluded with a unit for students to explore careers in a way that fit their personality. I had students take a fun career interest inventory based on John Holland’s work to discover which of his six codes (realistic, investigative, artistic, social, enterprising and conventional) fit them best. With their Holland code in hand, I directed students to career exploration websites, and Finally, students completed a survey I created, in which they selected their top two careers from each of Holland’s six areas.

After a mad dash to find speakers from a variety of careers, I held the first career café over six consecutive Fridays during lunch. I advertised each speaker on my bulletin board with the various Holland codes so students could match their interests. I didn’t use an official sign-up process and we met in a tiny conference room near the cafeteria during lunch.

The first year, the program’s strengths included student buy-in, and areas for growth included advertising and time and space constraints.

Year Two: Brew Stronger Coffee

If you decide to host something similar to a career café at your school, consider these logistical factors:
  • Space: considerable in size, convenient location and, if held during lunch, allows food
  • Time and frequency: when during the school day, how long, the duration (for six weeks, whole year, etc.)
  • Promotion: program advertising and sign up
I was thankful to have support from my principal and colleagues. The art teacher offered up her much larger space – also one of the few classrooms where food was allowed. Time was limited: once students got their lunches and came to the room, we only had about 25 minutes.

In the second year, I kept the same format for eighth-grade students and began talking to teachers incorporating careers into other classes. A new sixth-grade English teacher enthusiastically approached me about reinforcing career lessons through her own assignments.

September started off with different career settings: indoors, outdoors, work with people, work with animals, work with your hands, work with computers, etc. After students had been introduced to a wide variety of careers, the English teacher assigned her students to write a haiku about one of the careers. This skill was something she planned to teach anyway and decided it would be a fun reinforcement of my lessons. One student wrote:

One day I will be
A doctor who helps people
Learn to be healthy

Another skill topic in sixth-grade English class is persuasive writing, and I suggested the topic, “Why should students attend at least one career café in the spring?” I was beyond thrilled to hear the creative ideas students shared. In the weeks leading up to the career cafés, I asked a few of the students to share a sentence or two from their persuasive paragraph over the intercom each Monday morning. By the end of the second year, I offered eight career café sessions, twice each month from January through April.

Areas of challenge from the second year were again around space and sustainability. I began to wonder how I could keep this idea of a career café fresh and sustainable for years to come.

Year Three: Renovate the Coffeehouse

Now a few months into the program’s third year, I have made more changes. I’m again working with the sixth grade and have buy-in with the now-seventh-graders thanks to last year’s success. I plan to conduct a version of the Holland codes with them and hope to hold two career cafés before winter break. I now have a small group of committed speakers.

I’ve decided to use my office for career cafés. Although it’s small, I can decorate with posters and bulletin boards, career haikus and pictures. I also swapped out some of the larger furniture for small round tables and chairs, which makes the space more conducive to conversation – like a café, minus the coffee. I’m also working with the seventh-grade students to create table topics in jars so students can pull out a question to ask one of our speakers.

Students are able to move from one table to the next and use the table topics to spark conversations with the speakers. I think the act of sitting down with an adult and asking a question is a life skill that can be reinforced in other core academic classes. I also like having students generate some of the questions. When I’ve reached out to prospective speakers in the past, I’ve provided a loose framework of guiding questions such as, “What education and training did you need?” and “How did you learn about this career?” Students’ questions are much more authentic – and humorous. My favorite so far is “Will I really need to use math when I’m older?”

Time to Franchise?

What’s the difference between this and career day? The café model aims to generate conversations in a relaxed format about careers drawn from student interest. Although providing consistency is a lot more work on my end, it results in a more meaningful experience for the students.

The key to the career café’s success – as with any new program – is to start small, with a few core goals, and fine-tune each year with small tweaks. If in five years I’m still tweaking this program, I’ll consider it an opportunity to be relevant, creative and adaptable. And aren’t those great qualities we all want to model for our students?

Kathleen Goodman is a school counselor at Forest Ridge School of the Sacred Heart in Bellevue, Wash. She also serves on the adjunct faculty at Seattle University. Contact her at