One of the biggest surprises I faced as a high school teacher is that my expectations did not match my students’ behavior.
Was it because, as an “old” person, I had fallen out of touch with high school students? Or were students not totally aware of their teachers’ expectations? Probably a bit of both.
Now, I begin each new term with a list of classroom commandments explicitly detailing my expectations, policies, and pet peeves. While each teacher has her own idiosyncrasies, here are nine basic rules that generally apply across the board.
1. Questions are more important than answers.
Answers are easy to come by these days — anyone with access to the Internet can find out just about anything. Thus, teachers are putting more and more emphasis on critical thinking, which involves formulating probing questions that lead to examination of a concept or problem from multiple angles. I’m far more impressed by a student who asks a question I can’t answer or one who starts a classroom discussion than a student who can answer all the questions I ask.
2. Silence isn’t golden.
In elementary school, the troublemakers are often the kids who can’t stop talking, and the ones who rarely talk are often considered the “good kids.” But the older students get, the less desirable silence becomes. I find it challenging to work with students who don’t speak up in class to offer their peers their own opinions and knowledge. I’d take a student or a class that talks too much over one that doesn’t talk enough any day. Besides, the more students talk, the less I talk, which makes class more interesting.
3. Showing up isn’t enough.
You may have heard that “showing up is 80 percent of life,” but it’s not 80 percent of your grade. Yes, attendance is important, but attendance isn’t participation, engagement, or learning. Going to class is a start, of course, but it’s not everything. It’s what students do there that counts.
4. We know that paper/idea isn’t yours.
Teachers — especially English teachers — grade more papers a year than you can count. We read everyone’s writing a bazillion times. We know when students pull a bit of character analysis from Sparknotes or when classmates collaborate on their essays. Students always seem shocked when I confront them with a passage from their paper that I found with a quick Google search.
Perhaps some students assume that the stack of papers is simply too large for us to pay that much attention to. It’s not. Do the work yourself, even if it’s not of amazing quality. Better yet, ask for help if you can’t figure out what you want to say.
5. We know when you haven’t read/done the assignment.
“I did read chapter seven. I just didn’t understand it.”
“I wrote the essay last night, printed it, and left it on my desk at home.”
“I totally have today’s homework. But it’s in my locker.”
Sure, every now and then these excuses are legit. But 99 percent of the time, they aren’t. On the one hand, excuses indicate that a student is at least acknowledging that she didn’t do the work she was supposed to do and feels embarrassed, which is a good thing.
On the other hand, I’ve had students use these excuses every day for months on end, making me wonder just how gullible they think I am. If a student really didn’t understand chapter seven she should ask a question in class (or after) about the confusing part. Students can email that essay to me (or to themselves) if they have a habit of forgetting to print or pick it up. I’ll give a student a hall pass to go get that forgotten assignment out of a locker.
One time, a student in my world lit class raised his hand to comment on a story he was supposed to have read for homework. He referred to the protagonist as “her” throughout his fairly lengthy answer, which was full of the kind of ambiguous insights offered by horoscopes. He thought he nailed it until I mentioned that the main character in the story was a male (with an obviously male name). Students think it’s easy to make up answers, especially after hearing their classmates discuss a story, but we can tell when you haven’t done the reading.
6. Always discuss the problem after class, not during.
Sometimes, students and teachers have uncomfortable moments in class. Maybe a student got called out for chewing gum and really didn’t have any, or maybe a student got a demerit for talking, but it was really the person in the next row who was talking. It happens. But the worst thing a student can do is to protest or pick a fight in the moment.
What the teacher really wants is to get on with the class, to minimize disruptions. Having a heated argument with a student in the middle of class is the last thing a teacher wants, and it is almost guaranteed to end badly for the student. The best approach is to talk to the teacher after class — then, the student can explain the situation, and possibly get credit for handling the situation maturely.
If a student is confused about something in class, worried about a test, or having trouble concentrating, we want to know. We can’t help if we don’t know what’s going on. It can be difficult, even embarrassing, to admit to struggling, but struggles are expected in high school — that’s part of the point. We’re here to help, not judge.
8. Grit counts for more than brilliance.
I’m more impressed by a student who fails a test, studies, retakes it, and passes than by a student who gets an A the first time around. Sure, it’s a lot of work to study and get an A. But rebounding from failure is even more work — and not just academic work, but emotional work. It takes character to try again rather than giving up.
Somewhere along the way, students will encounter a difficult class or subject — there’s no avoiding it. Thus, resilience is perhaps the single most important quality a student can have. Angela Duckworth a psychologist from the University of Pennsylvania, argues that "resilience, not IQ, is the best predictor of success." Grit is one of those traits that goes far beyond the classroom — it’s desirable in any situation, anytime, anywhere.
9. You can and will change — nothing’s set in stone.
Reality changes moment by moment. Ever have a bad day that leaves you feeling like your whole life is heading in the wrong direction? But then you wake up the next day, and hey, you feel fine, and life isn’t terrible after all? Just because you feel something in one moment doesn’t make it the way things are for good. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned as a teacher is about mindsets.
Carol Dweck, a Stanford psychologist, argues that there are two different mindsets: the fixed mindset and the growth mindset. The fixed mindset is one that sets everything in stone — math is too hard, school sucks, my biology teacher doesn’t like me. It takes observations and experiences and turns them into hard truths.
The growth mindset acknowledges the experiences, but doesn’t use them to determine the way things are — math class was really hard today because I’m struggling to understand algebra; school was rough because I got into a fight with my friend; Mrs. Simpson told me to be quiet twice. It’s important for both teachers and students to try to avoid the fixed mindset. Instead of thinking that a student is unintelligent or bad at a subject, it’s more helpful to realize that, okay, the student did poorly on that test, but that’s just one test — the next one could be much better.
High schoolers change rapidly, both as students and as people. Thus, it’s important to try to avoid getting locked into one perception of one’s self (or of school).
With your GPA on your mind, you may run into that difficult situation when you feel like you received a lower grade than you deserved. Learn how you can talk to your teacher about grades and find a resolution like two adults.