I am currently leading a small group of faculty members in a book study of Todd Whitaker's What Great Teachers Do Differently. The goal is for us to sit down and have a meaningful discussion of what great teachers do differently than those who are not so great. We are about halfway through the book, and I have to say that while the concepts aren't groundbreaking, the discussions have been a great reflective exercise for myself and my colleagues. I think that is usually the case with trying to become great at something, though. When we look at people who are really good at what they do, we generally find that they aren't doing anything overly complicated or beyond the reach of anyone else. They are just very good at doing the simple things, and they do them consistently. With that in mind, I would like to start a blog series on here outlining some things that great students do differently. Todd Whitaker started out with fourteen things that matter most for teachers, but over the years, that number has grown to seventeen as the book has come out with new editions. I don't know how many I will come up with for students, and I am going to try to bring in some of my colleagues as guest bloggers to share some of their insights into what makes great students so effective. I don't believe anything we have to share is going to be earth-shattering, but perhaps it will allow for a discussion in the comments section and some reflection on your part. As you read these, ask yourself how well you do these things, and if you do them well, how consistently are you doing it.
On a weekly basis, I deal with students who are struggling in a class. Often times, the class they are struggling with is mine, but since I supervise a study hall and help my homeroom students, I also see students struggling in other classes. In almost every case, the answer to these struggles is to utilize the resources available within the school. I'll give you an example. Suzy is really struggling in her English class. She pays attention during daily grammar instruction and she tries really hard to figure out the parts of speech and the sentence parts and even that maniacal diagram, but the concepts just aren't solidifying for her. As a result, she struggles on grammar quiz after grammar quiz. She is frustrated because she has always like English class because she loves to read and even writes stories in her spare time; she wants to be a writer someday. Now she is getting a D in English and worries that she has been wrong about her career aspirations. She is ready to give up. This scenario could apply to any number of students sitting in any classroom in the school, and on the surface, it would seem that Suzy is doing everything right. She is paying attention, doing all of her work, and trying really hard to learn, but Suzy is making a common mistake. Suzy is operating under the assumption that she is in this battle alone.
Asking for help is hard. We worry that the people we are asking are annoyed or inconvenienced by our requests for support, but if we really think about it, the people we are afraid to ask have purposely put themselves in a position to help. Helping us is their job. School is set up in such a way that each progressing year builds on concepts from the year before. It stands to reason, then, that even a good student is eventually going to reach a level where the work becomes more difficult than they can manage on their own. This does not mean they are dumb or lazy. It does mean that they are going to have to change their approach. Every teacher in the building went through a difficult road to be standing at the front of that classroom, and they all did it because they wanted to. None of us are here against our will. One of the most frustrating things I encounter as a teacher is having a student fail knowing that they could've been successful if they had asked for help from me or anyone else.
Let's go back to Suzy. Suzy's mother is also concerned about Suzy's grade and the fact that Suzy is no longer as excited about school as she used to be. Suzy's mother contacts her English teacher to find out why Suzy is doing so poorly. The teacher reports that Suzy is paying attention in class, doing all of her work, and appears to be really trying to master the concepts, but she just isn't making much progress. The teacher also reports that Suzy never asks questions in class when the concepts are being covered. This is not uncommon. A majority of students are afraid to ask questions in class because they all feel like they are the only person who doesn't understand. As the guy who keeps the gradebook, let me put that to rest right now. In just about any class, there are a number of students who are struggling. Again, that is part of the process. If everyone has mastered the concepts being covered, what would be the point of the class. Suzy's mother tells the teacher that Suzy is shy, and getting her to ask questions in class is going to be more painful than pulling wisdom teeth with no anesthetic. For many students, this is where the throw in the towel, but great students realize that there are resources at their disposal. In Suzy's case, it is that English teacher. The teacher tells Suzy's mother that she is available to help Suzy one-on-one before school, after school, at lunch, or even during her prep period if necessary. Suzy's mother lets the teacher know that Suzy will be there after school the next day for tutoring. The teacher is excited to see Suzy's mother helping Suzy get the help she needs. The next day, Suzy shows up, and instead of being angry at the imposition, the teacher is happy to see Suzy taking the initiative to show up and get help. They work together for about twenty minutes after school and are able to identify the concepts that are causing confusion for Suzy. After a couple of these short, after-school sessions, Suzy is feeling much more confident in her grasp of the concepts. On the upcoming grammar quiz, Suzy goes from getting a failing grade to getting one of the highest grades in the course.
This scenario outlines two resources that students have at their disposal, but that only the really effective students use consistently: their parents and their teachers. Suzy did a great job of communicating with her mother about her frustrations in English class. Because of that communication, Suzy's mother was able to take action and contact the teacher for some insight into Suzy's problem. This communication led to Suzy finding out that the teacher is another great resource for her use. She learned that the teacher is there to help her learn; that is what teachers do.
This seems like such a simple concept, but so few students use these resources. When I have conversations with students and parents, I find that many students try to hide their learning problems from their parents and avoid asking their teachers for help. This is madness. Parents want what is best for their children, and teachers want their students to learn. I've never met a teacher who entered the profession to hinder student learning or because they like to see people fail. Great students understand this, and use these resources as a first instinct when they encounter problems.
Another human resource that is available to students but rarely used is the the tutoring program offered through the National Honor Society. Every day at lunch, there are two or three NHS students sitting in the library just waiting to help students with the subjects in which they are highly proficient. These students are almost never utilized. It isn't a sign of weakness to take a draft of an essay to a peer who is highly proficient in English class in order to have it proofread and get feedback for improvements or to seek help from someone in an advanced math class in order to prepare for an upcoming exam in Algebra I. It is a sign of maturity and resourcefulness: two skills that make for successful adults.
Not all resources are human resources. This year, we became a Google Apps school. I have been really stunned by how little students are utilizing this resource. Google Apps allows students to have more access to their teachers than ever before. Our email addresses are pre-loaded into your address book. You can add us to your Google Hangouts (instant messenger) contact list using that same email address. Google Drive allows you to share drafts with your teachers and peers for feedback before submission. Drive also allows you to save your assignments to the cloud, which means you never have to worry about losing your work to a crashed computer or saving it in the wrong drive on the school network never to be found again. Since many teachers also use Turnitin.com, it alleviates compatibility issues since Turnitin.com now has the ability to instantly upload a Google Drive document.
Thomas Edison once said, "When you have exhausted all possibilities, remember this- You haven't." I can't think of any better way to sum up what great students do differently. When they run into problems in a class, instead of giving up, they start looking to all of the resources they have available to them.