One would expect my students, my Padawans, to ask me frequently about what they need to do to be efficient in their line of work, i.e. the task of being, well, students.
I suspect that some know, but these individuals are few and far between; the vast majority, I fear, have no idea how to go about being a “successful”, for lack of a better word, student. Most parents do not ask this, either; I can imagine that they, too, have their own ideas about the road to academic success, but it is highly likely that these ideas might be outmoded – or, worse, they might be what got these very parents through high school. These would be students’ ideas, too, then – just older.
However, no one asks. Ever. No one even double-checks to see if they are right. No one has ever had an intelligent conversation about this topic in my presence in at least three years. (I would remember.) Both groups keep their ideas about Success in High School a secret. I believe they do so lest others might steal their hard-earned knowledge and reap the rewards of which they are unworthy. Or it might be that the subject never really comes up.
So, what suggestions might I have if, say, a student came all the way from the East, tired and dusty, seeking knowledge? I would not say one thing, that much is certain: I am wary of people who say that the answer is “one thing”, and I think you should be, too. Many a time the answer is more, much more than just one thing, and I feel these people are either lazy or simple-minded, or may even want to harm you by intentionally misguiding you – I do not know which type is more dangerous. So I would definitely not say one thing.
I would, however, say five. No, not the number “five”. I would say five things. These five things I did not invent, or conjure, or contemplate. They were a gift from a person who, although was not a teacher, was instrumental in the academic success of hundreds of students. We will call this man Mr. Tsi. (No, he is not Asian American.) He gifted these five ideas to me, and I have seen them applied day after day after day, quite effectively. They are not magic; nothing is a silver bullet. They do tend to work, though, more often than not. They work generally better than most other ham-handed, half-baked strategies which people have “heard from someone”; and they work much, much better than doing nothing.
Now, then, without further ado, I present you with Mr Tsi’s Fab Five Rules for Classroom Success:
1. Be there. You need to go to school. Unless you’re sick, be there. Nothing can make up for lost time. Every moment when you are not in school is gone forever. You cannot “create” more time. Es gibt kein Weg zurück. Be there.
2. Sit as close to the front as possible. You will hear much better and probably see better. Your teacher or professor will hear you better, too (notice how we are all much older than you?) The teacher will be able to see what you’re doing and offer guidance or suggestions more easily. Don’t hide in the back, it’s not helping you, really. Show up early and take that front seat.
3. Focus. You need to concentrate on whatever is happening, follow instructions, and work on what the task is. When the need to express your inner feelings about this or that becomes overwhelming, suppress it. When you experience the strong tendency to discuss the weather, say, or someone’s new shoes, just keep it to yourself. Trust me on this: it does not matter, and no one cares. In short, if you feel that you are drifting, fight it. If you can’t handle it, take a break – in fact, tell your teacher: he or she may be able to suggest something to help, like “Go splash some water on your face and come back”. Whatever you do, don’t slack it off. Be present now. Now is the only time that is available to any person. Be in the moment. I feel like saying more here, but I don’t want to spoil the surprise.
4. Take notes. What you write down will be your only connection to the current work when you are home and trying to make sense of things that transpired hours, or even days, ago. Notes allow you -nay, force you- to analyze new content as you are receiving it: they help you separate the important elements from inconsequential noise, and transform useless raw data into usable chunks of information. If you don’t know how to take notes, if you’ve never done this before, ask. And, finally
5. Ask questions. Make it a point to ask a clever, cogent, clear, and concise question every day. I would suggest implementing a mental filter here, to focus your questions, and your teacher can also advise you on that. It is generally effective if you state the nature of the question before asking it: that is, if a query is about procedure, say “Ma’am, a question about procedure”; if it’s meant to clarify, say “Sir, clarification”, and follow up with the actual question. The mere fact that you are able to ask a question implies that you have studied whatever the class is working on. Asking also allows you (or your teacher) to realize if there is anything amiss with your understanding of the material, and it might also help those less fortunate or valiant than you are.
There. The most perceptive among you may have realized that all this, while simple, is far from easy. With the exception of items 1 and 2, these are strategies and tactics utilizing your critical thinking and your cognitive skills (i.e. skills for thinking and learning). If many things here are beyond your grasp, do not fret. They are not as hard as you may think. They might seem hard now, in the same way that walking once felt awkward to you when you were a toddler. But if I were a betting man, I’d wager that you can walk now, and very easily so. Can’t you?
2018 11 04 Sun
One of the most common complaints I hear from Padawans is the heightened stress they are experiencing during their school routine. This is becoming, or rather has become, such a common problem that all stakeholders are clamoring for a solution. And it is serious enough that we might address it here, albeit in an informal way.
Stress is roughly defined as "a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse, unfamiliar, or very demanding circumstances." If we take this definition seriously, it follows that school has become an environment that students experience as adverse, unfamiliar, or inordinately demanding, none of which are attractive alternatives. However, if we look past the shocked surprise at the apparent failure of our system, we might make some interesting as much as productive observations.
The first is that it is rather immaterial whether the students' assessment of the school environment is accurate or not. What matters is that our students, your sons and daughters, perceive it as such, that they see the process of teaching, or learning, or simply being in the school environment as something inherently stressful. The second observation is that, once something is classified as "emotional" strain, it cannot in all honesty be explained away: if I am afraid of the dark, telling me that it's not that dark will not allay my fears. To draw the metaphor to extremes, one can either turn on the light, or they can train me to improve my night vision. The third point I wish to make here is that, perhaps, we have been turning on too many lights too often.
No one of sane mind would argue against the notion that preparing children for reality is truly one of the primary tasks of any teacher, any school, any education system; indeed, of any society or culture aiming to preserve and guarantee its future existence. If we are, indeed, preparing these children for what awaits out there, perhaps we should be acknowledging that conditions IRL (in real life) might get uncomfortable at times. That there will be times when, as adults, they might have to grin and bear it. That they will, on occasion, need to bite the proverbial bullet. I do not think that any parent, or anyone for that matter, wishes us to teach the next generation that there is such a thing as an easy life, an easy job, an easy marriage.
We are then honor-bound to stop focusing their edification merely on safety for when they're sunning themselves by the lake. We are to cease propagating the myth (and fostering the illusion) that it's all going to be wine and roses. And if we wish to serve them by training them for the real conditions of the world at large, it is our sacred duty to stop being Crusaders intent on eliminating any and all stress from their daily lives. Sadly, though, this is who we have become. We have been making it easier and easier for these little people, making more and more of their days feel like long leisurely strolls in the park, making tests and assessments easier, easier still, lowering the bar further and further, while we congratulate each other for a job well done, and expect college to take care of this, too. In private, of course, we all bemoan a sad state of affairs of our own making: "This generation," we say, "is not ready for big things; not the way we were ready for big things." In my view, if we stay on this course we will have betrayed them beyond repair.
I also see that if we are to expect big things from these wonderful people we have the luxury of being able to affect, we need to help them be ready by giving them (first) small things to chew on while they are teething. We have to see the school as a safe place, yes, but one where students need to experience some stress. It will not always be pleasant - in fact, it must not be. The first time one experiences stress might well feel, for lack of a better word, stressful. But there needs must be a second time. And a third. Until it becomes clear that they can cope with stress, that they can work with it, past it, through it, that they can deliver on a deadline, that they can adapt, and improvise, and overcome. That in the words of an esteemed colleague, stress is "a feeling; it will pass." And this small victory will be the most important thing they will take home that day.
Now, there is a lot to be said about how resilient the human body is, to say nothing of the human spirit. Our students are capable of accomplishing much, much more than we give them credit for. However, we cannot keep pushing the important things back, we cannot and must not begrudge them all the little victories that shall one day lead to the big ones. We need not keep giving them a skirt to hold. Let them experience those small everyday wins that make us adults happy. Allow them to confront themselves and emerge victorious. Should this come to pass, we will stare in awe at a brand new realization: that they've got this.