This morning I had a chance to talk to a 10th grade student named Jessica and our conversation developed into a discussion about why so many 9th grade students fail their core content classes.
Some background… Jessica failed her 9th grade English, algebra, history, and science classes. She had good attendance but wasn’t on top of doing her schoolwork. When missing assignments accumulated she got overwhelmed and eventually succumbed to the stress of having too many problems to fix. The number of assignments she had zero credit for far outweighed her ability to raise here grade to passing (a D- is passing).
As a 10th grader she now is passing all of her classes with A’s, B’s, and C’s.
I was fully impressed by her change and felt curious about it. I asked Jessica what she learned in 9th grade that caused her to become a successful and scholarly 10th grade student. She started by highlighting the fact that she hated summer school… and then she began a deeper discussion that reminded me of many of the essentials necessary to succeed in school.
- Be comfortable asking questions. Jessica told me that in 9th grade she never used to ask questions. When teachers taught concepts and she still didn’t understand, she would passively accept that outcome and not request clarification. One of my core beliefs is that asking questions is the best way to get unstuck about something, particularly when asking an expert. When we ask an expert about something that confuses us, we efficiently access the support/information necessary to move forward in a productive and positive way. Jessica shared that as a 10th grade student she now asks questions. Not understanding is no longer an acceptable outcome for her.
- Decide to pay attention. While Jessica and I were talking she told me that she had to retake algebra in summer school. She noticed that “when I payed attention it was actually easy.” There are a myriad of reasons young people fail to pay attention in class (I won’t go into that here)… but ultimately we (as people) get to decide how we are going to be. As such… paying attention is our choice, and it is the choice that drives us towards success and towards a deepened level of mental discipline. Choosing to pay attention… to our teachers, to the world around us, to opportunities to learn… the choice to be attentive to opportunities to grow our minds… that is the choice that often determines success and not failure.
- Know how to manage stress. Jessica shared with me a time when a teacher had told her “you’re just a kid… you shouldn’t have stress!” and Jessica explained to me that YES, kids do have stress. “We take all these classes and teachers think that we only have homework from one class. We are juggling all of these things and it’s really difficult to keep it all together.” This highlight’s the fact that adults often forget what it is like to be a student. Young people need their stress to be recognized and adults need to support them towards navigating difficult and stressful situations. Moreover, they need to know that being stressed out is not a reason to give up… this is a tenant of life that adult caretakers need to model. Young people need to be held accountable, all the while being supported, through stressful situations.
- Have an adult family member or friend supporting you. Jessica shared that when she got stressed and couldn’t finish an assignment that she would given up. During her 9th grade year this lead to failure as her grades were negatively impacted by her work completion. In 10th grade one of the things that Jessica accessed was the support of her family. “I asked my dad and sister to be harsh with me and that if I had bad grades to help me make my work up. Plus they were pissed at me and told me that they weren’t going to let me fail.” The support of her family connects directly to her improved school performance because “they really helped me stay on track and get my work done. If I wasn’t doing my schoolwork then they would make me until I finished.” Jessica exemplifies the idea of a designed alliance, or an agreement about how you want your relationship to be. By asking her family to be firm with her and hold her accountable she was able to access the support she knew she needed to be successful in school.
As adults it is important to remember that we forget. meaning… we need to be sensitive to the changes that take place within us as we age and how those changes distance us from what we knew to be true in our youth. Adults who are influential in the lives of young people need to be particularly careful about how they manage their expectations and perceptions of what young people go through. I believe that adults in this position need to stay curious and keep asking questions. We can never assume that we know until we ask.
Jessica struck a chord in me when she said that she was told “you’re just a kid… you should have no stress.” It hit the core of my brain and made me realize how we take our adult perspectives for granted. We forget what it was like to be in the midst of the challenging world of high school.
Peace and love,
Teo Weiner is America’s Teacher. He is an education coach and life consultant. To contact Teo email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.