Saturday, December 14, 2013

What Great Students Do Differently: Be Proactive, Not Reactive

As I sit here at my desk at home watching the snow falling and grading student essays, I am reminded of an idea I had for another entry in this series. It occurred to me on vacation (I think about how to be a better teacher while on vacation. How many students think about how to be a better student while sitting on a tropical beach? There may be something seriously wrong with me!). I am in the process of reading The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens by Sean Covey, and I was reading it periodically while basking in the Dominican sun in between longer intervals of reading A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini. I'm obviously not a teen, but I do work with teens, so I am very interested in what qualities make some teens effective while others never seem to find success. I can not recommend this book to high school students strongly enough. In fact, I tend to think we would benefit from every student at PCHS reading it as a requirement for some class somewhere. It is available in the library if you are interested in reading it yourself.
The book itself is very easy to read. It is written into short, manageable sections with a lot of real-life examples to illustrate the concepts being addressed, and each chapter ends with baby steps a teen could take toward cultivating these habits. Honestly, anyone could benefit from cultivating these habits. They are universal; the way in which they are presented is simply targeted toward teens, but I digress.

The first habit is being proactive, and as I was reading this chapter, I realized that this may  be one of the more important things that great students do. Instead of their classes happening to them, they take control over their learning and their education. This is easily apparent when I grade student essays. There are some students whose final essay of a semester is obviously better than their first essay. These students are proactive. When they get the feedback from the first essay, they begin trying to figure out how to improve. They come talk to me or another teacher to get clarification on what a good essay should be, and then they continue this process for the entire course. The understand that the grade they receive is based upon how well they can produce an essay that meets the guidelines of the assignment and the structure of an academic essay. They are proactive. Other students are reactive. They take no steps to improve and keep letting the poor grade happen to them. It is amazing to me the number of students whose feedback and grade on the final essay is exactly the same as the first essay. These students are reactive. Here is the difference in responses to a poor essay grade from proactive students and reactive students:

-I got marked down for not having a thesis statement. I need to go talk to the teacher to figure out what they are looking for in a thesis statement and why my thesis doesn't measure up.
-I thought I incorporated enough support, but the feedback says it is lacking. I need to figure out how to more effectively incorporate support.
-I received a failing grade. I need to figure out what I need to do to earn a passing grade.

-I got marked down for not having a thesis statement. Thesis statements are stupid. When will I ever need to write a thesis statement?
-I thought I incorporated enough support, but the feedback says it is lacking. The teacher is just mean and wants us all to fail. There is nothing I can do to improve.
-I received a failing grade. The teacher is unfair and out to get me.

Which approach seems more likely to lead to success? The fact of the matter is that life is hard. Accomplishing any goal is going to take trial and error. I do not know of a single successful person who hasn't hit a brick wall or two along the way. Randy Pausch, author of The Last Lecture (another book I think everyone should read), describes brick walls in this way:

The brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something. Because the brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough. They’re there to stop the other people.

This perfectly sums up the difference between proactive and reactive people. Proactive people encounter a brick wall and immediately start trying to figure out how to get over it, through it, around it. Reactive people complain about the brick wall and keep letting it stand in their way. 

If you have managed to stick with this post up to this point, I would like you to take a few moments of honest reflection to think about how you react to brick walls. Think about the last time you didn't find success at something, whether it was failing a test, doing poorly on an assignment, or not making the team/getting the part. What was your first reaction? Did you start coming up with reasons it was unfair? Did you start figuring out who (besides you) was to blame? Or did you start figuring out what YOU could do to ensure greater success the next time? Your answer well tell you what kind of person you are right now, but the great thing about life is that a reactive person can make the choice to start being proactive. In fact, making that choice is the first, most-important proactive decision a reactive person can make. If you are brave enough, share in the comments what you came up with in your honest reflection.