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.
7. Talk to your teachers.
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.
If you’re like me, the article “What Students Really Need To Hear” has come across your Twitter or Facebook feed. While I read it and enjoyed it, someone I know hated it. That someone would like a word with you, C. Mielke. Me from 2002.
Me from 2002
You don’t know me, but, judging from your article, I’m pretty sure I am your worst nightmare. I am a male. I am a minority, and I come from a broken home where neither of my parents went to college. In fact, they both barely graduated high school, so needless to say: we don’t have a lot of money. Life is tough. Oh, I also hate school. I only come to play sports.
You seem like a great guy, Mr. Mielke. I wish all my teachers cared as much as you. The fact is, most don’t. They just want to collect their paycheck. Some are so weak they let me and my classmates run the show – being big and brown and having a mean stare is enough to get most of my teachers to leave me alone – and others don’t understand why I rather put my head down, listen to my Ipod, or talk with my friends than do my sixth ditto of the day… why are they called dittos anyway?
I didn’t always hate school, I learned to hate school. The fact is, Mr. Mielke, I go to a school where many of the teachers aren’t good. You see, teaching is the most important job in the world and if you are bad at it, you can really hurt us kids. Don’t get me wrong, my teachers weren’t bad people, but not one taught with any passion. If my teachers don’t teach with passion, how do they expect me to learn with passion? If they don’t love teaching, how can I love learning?
I had to be at my bus stop at 6:15 this morning. I went to bed at midnight last night. So, I’m tired and my teachers are boring, why are you surprised that my head is down or I skip the occasional class? I mean, why do they have to start school so early when so many studies say us high school kids needs more sleep? It’s funny, Mr. Mielke, I might be seventeen, but I solved this problem already: if they would just flip the start times of elementary and high school I would be so much happier. I mean, my little sister has been up since 5 watching cartoons. Make her go to school early! I told a teacher about my solution once, she said she would put it in her circular file… I don’t know what that means.
Anyway, I guess my head being down looks like quitting to you, but I came to school didn’t I? Here I am! Teach me! What do my teachers have planned for me today? Is it something I want to learn or something they want me to learn? Something “I’ll need to know in the real-world” like Trigonometry because I can guarantee you I’ll never need to use it. Why do teachers get so mad when I ask, why do I need to know this? It seems like a really important question.
Are they teaching facts, today? Do I have to take notes? I hope not, since anything I need to know I can just look up on the computer when I need to know it. Thanks, Google! This is good because I’ll just lose the notes anyway. No one taught me how to be organized. Trigonometry, yes. Organization, no. No one ever taught me how to take notes either, now that I think about it…
Is it a test? I hope we don’t have a test today! I didn’t study; no one taught me that either. If there is a test today, I’ll probably just cheat on it since the system values grades more than learning. I’ve had to get really good at cheating since school punishes me for not learning something right the first time. Hey, the stuff on the test won’t be on the final will it? I forget everything right after I learn it, since it doesn’t matter to me.
I hope my teachers aren’t doing that thing where they give an example once on the board and then tell us to try it while they work their way around the room helping us. My classes are so big, my teachers never seem to make it to me to see if I need help, and I can’t raise my hand to ask for help, Mr. Mielke, I have a reputation to protect!
What about homework? Do we have homework tonight, even though studies show homework does very little to help me learn? I hope not because my last seven teachers gave me homework, too. I also have three tests tomorrow. I have wrestling after school, and I don’t know how I’m going to get everything done tonight. I mean, I have to make dinner for me and my sister; my mom is working until 9 again. Grilled Cheese is on the menu.
This all must sound like excuses or quitting to you, Mr. Mielke. and that’s what makes me most angry about what you said. Mr. Mielke, you questioned my toughness; my GRIT!
I am the toughest kid you’ll ever meet, Mr. Mielke. This year, I got a 1250 on my SATs and led the team in tackles. How many kids you teach can say that? The problem is your definition of toughness and my definition of toughness are very different. You must have not heard, I dislocated my finger in the second period of last nights wrestling match. My team needed me to win, so the trainer popped it back in, buddy-taped it, and I won the match at the buzzer with a sick blast-double! I was a hero! But, no I don’t have this super-power-GRIT to shut up, sit in my seat, and finish some long, boring assignment or standardized test that my teachers give me. I do have the GRIT to not smoke the pot I was offered at Saturday’s party, though, because I’m trying to be the first person in my family to go to college. Not because I want to, but because I was told I have to.
No! You know what: I question my teachers GRIT, Mr. Mielke! Why can’t teachers have the GRIT to stand up to the politicians that have no business making decisions about what I need to know. They don’t know me, you do! Why can’t teachers have the GRIT to close the learning gap between white kids and minority kids like me? Why can’t teachers have the GRIT to call for year-round schooling when you know it’s what we need! Why can’t my teachers have the GRIT to teach against the test and the textbook? Most importantly, why can’t my teachers have the GRIT to create an engaging, relevant curriculum where I’m actively learning what I want to learn how I want to learn it? Why, Mr. Mielke? “No more excuses. No more justifications. No blaming. No quitting. “ Teachers need to man up and grow some balls!
Here’s the thing, Mr. Mielke. You’re blaming the victim: the student. There’s a problem with the education system and no amount of student-GRIT is going to change that. You’ve taken the first step, though Mr. Mielke. You care about me. I’ll never tell you, but that means a lot to me. That is enough to get me to meet you halfway, Mr. Mielke, and that is the most you can hope for from a reluctant learner like me. But don’t blame me. Fix the system.
Anyway, this might have sounded mean or negative, Mr. Mielke, but know I appreciate you. I wish more teachers were like you in this school. Maybe I would love learning again.
Me From 2002