As a ninth grade counselor and teacher, I witnessed the struggles of students (and their parents) making the transition from 8th to 9th grade first-hand. But it’s not so much moving from middle school to high school, or even high school to college, that is the truly difficult part; it’s just that each new step emphasizes those areas of navigating your education you still need to master. The skills you need to get the most out of your education are the same no matter where you are along that path, and it’s never too early to start putting pro-active behaviors into place.
Believe it or not, your educational institutions – your teachers and your schools – are there to serve you. It may sound like a terrible thing to say, but the fact is, there’s a game to be played, and if you’re sitting on the sidelines you may not be losing – but you’re not winning either. You can’t be a passive learner and truly learn. You need to participate in class, ask questions of your teachers and of your school, and reach out for help when it is needed. Never should you get to the end of a class with a teacher to whom you’ve not spoken – not even in a college class of 300! It is not enough to avoid ‘losing’ at the game of school; you are wired to ‘win’ – because we all are. It will look different for every person, but once you get the feel of your own personal success, you’ll be glad you stretched yourself outside of your comfort zone and started to grow.
Maybe you aren’t comfortable with the ‘winning and losing’ construct that I’m using, but it’s the simplest way I can say it. When I worked in a small-group setting, it was a regular occurrence for a student to walk into the classroom, sit down, and immediately begin to ask questions about an assignment he or she had just been working on in English class. My first question to that student was always, did you ask the teacher about this? And inevitably, the child would respond in the negative, even though they’d just left that teacher’s classroom!
Never before working in this environment – where I had the chance to work one-on-one with students instead of teaching English to 25+ kids per class – had I witnessed the depth of student resistance to exposing perceived academic weaknesses to their teachers and peers. While I do not feel this experience is exclusive to students with learning disabilities, I did see in them more clearly how beaten down we can be when our hardest work does not yield results that in any way mirror the level of effort we put into them, and how stubborn that innate need for self-protection can be after even just a few instances of perceived failure.
This is just one example, but really it’s a composite of what I saw play out over and over again with my small-group students: A student is struggling with a subject. She appears to grasp a concept well until test day, when once again she bombs the exam (sound familiar?). By November she is devoid of hope, convinced she will fail, and completely resigned to that fact without being willing to entertain any option or alternative. We all sense that she knows what she is doing, but the grades are telling us otherwise.
Now let’s say this student is only attending tutorials sporadically at this point, and she clearly needs more regular help than either sporadic tutoring or our classroom program can offer. We know that when she goes to the teacher’s tutorials, there are other students also in the room, and she rarely, if ever, asks questions. So we convince her (more like strong-arm her, I admit) to attend a set tutoring schedule with her classroom teacher where she is the only student present, and she begins meeting with the teacher one-on-one before school two times a week. Soon enough, she’s passing her tests and quizzes, and for the rest of the year, she makes decent grades – her class average never falls below a C again, and her attitude never takes another turn for the worse, even when the occasional stumble occurs.
So what happened? In those private tutoring sessions, her teacher had time to ask specific questions, and wait for her to answer without having to navigate the responses and reactions of other students. Together they figured out where things were going wrong, and worked on a strategy to make up for the deficit. This isn’t someone else coming to the teacher with paperwork and telling them what the problem is and what to do to assist with it, this is better – because the teacher sees the struggle in action and participates in addressing it. Maybe the teacher realized she was more successful when she answered questions orally instead of writing them down, and gave her permission to test privately to recite her answers (if that sounds like too radical a solution, that there’s no way a classroom teacher would allow such a thing – I’ve seen it happen. Repeatedly). Maybe the teacher realized an underlying issue with reading fluency or comprehension was causing the problem, and alerted the student’s counselor so it could be addressed. Or perhaps the one-on-one time simply allowed the student to review concepts that flew past her too fast in the classroom – anything is possible. But such solutions will never be found if the student declines to show up, ask questions, and get the teacher on her team.
Doing this is incredibly hard for many students, because it makes them vulnerable to the adults and peers around them. They have, after all, one job to do in school – pay attention, take notes, and learn. When they cannot accomplish this on their own, it taps into all sorts of insecurities and, in many cases, real past experiences where they were mocked or shamed for falling short in the eyes of others. Perhaps the people who did the shaming didn’t do it intentionally, or even realize that the one sarcastic comment they made as an attempt to cheer the kid up affected them as negatively as it did. But to the student in question, it doesn’t matter. Such memories loom large in a child’s mind (and in many adult’s lives, too) and it involves a lot of courage and a good bit of trust to open themselves up to criticism again. But it can be done, and in fact, it has to be done – not just to get what you need from your teachers but to help you move past the roadblocks to your success and replace those old, painful memories with some new and positive experiences.
Just think if the kid in our example had asked for assistance from her teacher as soon as the problem arose – she would have never gotten into that hole in the first place. It’s not that the teacher performed some miracle once she got the kid into her room for tutoring; it’s just that he or she was finally made aware that there was something going on other than apathy that was holding her down. And that is the point I’ll make here, too: you have to do more than just show up. You have to make that connection with those people charged with educating you. If you don’t, it is not just your teachers who won’t know of what you are capable – you won’t know it, either.
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