I have a sign on the wall in my classroom with a heading that reads: “How to Pass.” Most students don’t follow the advice because most of them don’t even know the sign is there. Oh I’ve pointed it out – believe me – but as with everything the teacher says, it’s only the good students that hear me and they’re the ones who already do what the sign tells them anyway. Sound familiar?
So what is written on that little sign? Four statements:
Do your work
Simple. Let’s face it – public education is, by definition, designed so that nearly all students can make it. It’s an easy game! Adopt those four principles and you’ll be successful. Is it as easy as simply reading the sign and Shazaam! you’re a good student? Lots of students read those four statements and don’t really know exactly what they mean or where to start. Fine. Let’s get specific.
#1 Show up. We would hope that coming to class would make a big difference in student achievement. If coming to your class doesn’t make a big difference in student success, you need to take a hard look at how you’re spending your class time. If your presence is not adding value to class time, why are you there? The student could just learn from home. Struggling students often don’t like school and so they skip classes. Don’t we all sometimes try to avoid things we don’t like? The trouble is skipping classes negatively affects their outcome, which contributes to their dislike of school, and the cycle continues. Attendance policies and incentive programs help but they tend to target students who care about consequences and these are generally not the students we’re concerned about. Our school has a particularly powerful attendance policy which has the consequence of expelling students from school if they miss too many classes. It works very well, although the irony of kicking a kid out of school for missing too many classes has not escaped my attention. Nevertheless, it does send the message that we believe attending class is important.
#2 Pay attention. Easier said than done. Hands up if you’ve ever caught yourself day dreaming during a staff meeting. If you raised your hand don’t you dare get angry at students for doing the same thing. I tell my students straight up that I know some of them don’t care about biology (hard to imagine!) but they have to find a way to stay alert because the grade on their report card doesn’t depend on whether they enjoyed the class. They need to recognize when they’re drifting away and snap themselves back. I let them know that asking and answering questions can help them stay focused. Of course, we already know asking questions improves understanding too. Thus, asking questions helps them stay alert and strengthens understanding in a powerful synergy.
#3 Do your work. It’s discouraging that I even have to say anything about this one but some students simply don’t recognize the value in practicing what they’ve learned and completing assignments. I can’t blame them completely. When I first began teaching many of my assignments were poorly designed, didn’t relate well to the material, and probably seemed irrelevant. Many of them had pretty low learning outcomes. I’ll stop short of saying they were merely busy work. Why should I expect a student to become invested in an assignment that seems pointless? If the work we give students is meaningful and perceived as being beneficial they will be far more likely to complete it. If they have choice in the assignments they are required to do they are more likely to do them. Finally, whether we like it or not, giving students time in class also increases the likelihood of them actually doing it. Part of completing assignments might be getting help when they need it. Students need to be consistently reminded to ask for help and to make sure they are confident in their mastery of the skills and the material.
#4 Behave. I’ve already written about my thoughts on classroom rules so I won’t get into that here. Essentially, school is a pretty easy game to play. Follow a few simple rules and you’ll get along just fine. Keep your head down. Back away from a fight. Be respectful. I know that’s easy to say as someone who’s not an adolescent with a reputation to protect but I try to help my students see that if they just try to get along, life is much easier. Students who manage to stay out of trouble (and that’s the vast majority of students at my school) generally have more success than those who break the rules.
So there. It ain’t that difficult. All it takes is a little effort. Most students are lucky to have teachers who care about them and their future. If we encourage them to take advantage of what we offer them – resources, expertise, attention, compassion, understanding – they’ve got a recipe for success.
What do you think?