These tips come from my sixteen years in the classroom as a high school English teacher. Now that I’m newly retired, I can look back calmly and share some pearls of wisdom I gleaned from the approximately 2,240 students (28/average students per class x 5 classes per year x 16 years) I taught who were always motivated to do their best, every single day, every single class period, regardless of what was happening in their lives and the proximity to the beginning of the week, end of the week, beginning of the day, end of the day, hungry for lunch, tired after lunch, vacation coming, just back from vacation (English teacher sarcasm). You get it: help yourself to be a better student.
- You’re a student and you are in school. You are not expected to know everything, that’s what teachers are for (more sarcasm). You are in school to learn, not just to show what you already know. So, please, don’t focus on what you don’t know. No more “I’m not good at this” or “I don’t know this.” If it was so easy, would we need to go to school for at least 12 years? Let yourself learn. Confidence!
- Your teacher is not the enemy. We were not sent by some evil cabal* of parents to make your lives difficult. Think about it: why would we spend most of our waking hours with you if we didn’t want to help you learn? See us as your partners in learning. It will be better for us all. Save the attitude and be your wonderfully charming self in class.
- Ask questions. If you’re not sure of something, ask a question in class. If you’re too shy because you think that everyone but you gets it (though they are merely pretending just like you are), then speak to your teacher after class. If they’re too distracted getting ready for the next class or you’re too anxious to get out of the classroom, then try to schedule a time to come back for help. Or, send an email! And if they don’t get back in a second (wait), or a minute (wait), or an hour (wait), or the next day, then email again. We get lots of emails and it could have gotten lost in the mix. Teachers are not purposefully ignoring your emails. But establish communication. Successful students, as in students who understand our content, are our pride and joy—especially those who we see have lightbulbs suddenly shining above their heads. Give us a chance. Sometimes explaining something one-on-one makes it clear, as opposed to during class when you can get distracted—is it raining?
- Do your work. How do you know if something is busy work or if it’s practice to help you learn a skill? Generally, no one wants to do work that is not needed, so why would we come up with assignments that we don’t think are important? If you play a sport or an instrument, you know how important practice is. And if not, your parents and coaches and instructors are constantly reminding you. Same thing for skills learned in the classroom. Again, we are here to help you learn and be masters of our content, don’t fight it.
- Do your work or at least get started on the day it is assigned. This way, if you aren’t sure of something, you have time to ask your teacher for clarification. Also, the material is fresher in your mind, so you’re putting that knowledge to use, which activates it rather than letting it fade away.
- Take notes. Hopefully you remember how to hold a pencil. If not, there’s another skill to work on. Try not to use your computer for note-taking since it is very easy (as you well know) to get distracted and, perhaps, you can’t have it out during some classes. I used to tell my students that if something was important enough for me to write it on the board, then they need to write it. That advice still stands. If your teacher wrote it, write it down. If your teacher repeats a point, write it down. Think about which info you need to know, and which info you need to know in order to understand the need-to-know info. In other words, don’t write down everything, but you do need to write some of it.
- Read your notes. Study from them. Highlight them. Use them. They weren’t just a place to doodle during class. There are different ways to take notes; find the way that works best for you. This may even change over time or depending on the content. There are lots of ideas online along with lots of graphic organizers to use. Just don’t go to either of the extremes: writing down everything the teacher says and not writing anything. This is the teacher’s class as much as it is your class: be active.
- Everything your teacher says is important. Ok, maybe not, but even if something won’t be on a test, it’s still of value; otherwise, why would your teacher have decided to teach it or talk about it? While it may seem like each class period is endless, it is not and we only have a set number of minutes we meet each week and we have more content than we can get to in a year. You’re already getting the curated information.
- Studying is not a punishment. It’s like exercise: you learn the moves and do the initial repetitions in school. The studying on your own is the repeat reps you need to do to really get the moves down right and to benefit from them. Studying is an activity, don’t be passive.
- Create a study schedule and make sure to include time to take breaks. Be hard on yourself until this becomes a habit. Repeating myself here: think of this like you would a sport or instrument or other thing that you like and work at. Also, don’t ignore the classes that are hard for you and only focus on the ones you like and think you’re good at. Keep pushing yourself. Think how great it feels when you achieve something that you didn’t think you were capable of. As I began, so I end, Confidence! You got this, just give yourself a chance.
* The dictionary and the thesaurus are your friends.
One final point: It’s okay to not like every subject (I get it, not everyone loves to read and write essays as much as an English teacher), but be excited about the opportunities you’re being given to learn from so many people who are devoted to helping you develop your potential. Yalla! Let’s go!