I have been a high school teacher for the past 14 years. I started at age 22, when I was barely older than the seniors and super cool. Now I am pretty much a crotchety old grandma to teenagers, who ask me things like “Were you a hippie?” I’m 37. You do the math.
After all this time I still love what I do. I feel that being a parent has made me a better teacher and being a teacher has given me better parenting skills . From my crotchety-old-grandma-perspective, here are 5 skills your child needs to master before (preferably long before!) high school, and some examples of what I do with my own elementary-age children to build these skills now.
Successful students know how to speak to someone when they want something from them.
I cannot tell you how many times I have gotten an email from a student that reads “The computer says I have a D. Why is my grade a D?!?!” No greeting, no closing…nothing more than that. Similarly, students will approach my desk and almost defiantly blurt out “I don’t have a pencil.” and then just stare at me.
I finally started addressing this with my classes, explaining that good manners, a smile and a small amount of kindness can go a long way. My own hypothesis is that in today’s teenager world of texting and other stuff that I’m no longer cool enough to know about, that sort of stuff doesn’t matter. However, basic manners are vital to interact successfully with people both in and beyond high school.
What does this look like with young kids? I don’t know about your children, but mine don’t like making eye contact with adults. When people say “Goodbye” to them they yell “Bye!” while already running out the door. I’m still working with them on the simple social skill of making eye contact when speaking with people. We also focus on speaking to people kindly, whether it’s an adult, a family member or even our own sisters.
Successful students know how to self-advocate
To me “self-advocacy” means asking for what you need or sticking up for yourself in a polite, clear manner.
Many times, I worked with students who had a major project due and majorly dropped the ball or had a legitimate family or health issue arise. Instead of coming to me to explain, they would just turn in something slapped together, 5 days late or not at all. Most students don’t realize the power of saying to a teacher “I’m really sorry. I dropped the ball and didn’t start my project on time, then I got really sick. Could I please have an extra day or two?”
High school teachers can have 150 students or more. Although we’d love to, we don’t always have the time to think through or even notice what is happening in a student’s life. We appreciate any information a student is willing to share and we are usually very accommodating when students are open and honest with us.
This is a hard skill to work on with young children, but I think it starts with encouraging your child to problem-solve, to pause and think about what they need, then communicate it clearly. If you’ve got any tips on getting young kids to do that, I’m all ears!
Last year we had some second-grade girl drama. I encouraged my daughter to talk over the problems with her teacher. I still got involved, because it was second grade, but by high school, I want a child who can manage her own social issues and communicate with teachers without me involved.
Successful students have “grit”
Grit is a current buzzword in education. It is basically a person’s ability to persevere in the face of setbacks. Studies suggest that grit, more than intelligence, talent or luck, determines a person’s success in life. If you’re going to pick one skill to focus on, this is it!
I know that young children often lack grit and that it can be hard to teach. A few days ago I had to deal with a child whining about not being able to loosen the laces on a pair of shoes when I’ve shown her how to do it a bazillion times. I’m often caught off guard by my daughter flailing her arms and yelling “It’s not perfect! It has to be perfect!” Seriously, where does that drama come from?
Grit is about letting your kids do things on their own and encouraging them to try different tactics when the first attempt fails. I’m not always great at this, but I try whenever possible to praise effort rather than outcome and to constantly remind my girls that I don’t expect perfection; that it’s good to try, fail and try again.
Successful students have an understanding of the “cause and effect” of studying.
If you are an old lady like me, you may be flabbergasted to hear that many teenagers today see no connection between studying and good grades. They are really convinced that just sitting in class is enough to secure them an A. If you really want me to get going we can talk about the “no homework” policy that is cropping up in elementary schools and its contribution to this problem, but we should probably leave that alone for now.
I am trying to instill in my girls that skills and talents take work and that the amount of effort they put into something determines the quality of the outcome. What does that look like? It looks like me reminding my daughter that she can’t play a brand new piano piece at full speed, that it’s called “practice” for a reason. It’s making my girls do their reading and practice math every day when they’d rather be playing outside.
Successful students are independent learners and seek out opportunities to achieve their goals
During the past 7 years I had the privilege to teach an Advanced Placement (college) level class. It was fascinating to watch these successful students in action. Most of my AP students had mastered the skills I just mentioned long before high school. I saw them as juniors and seniors who were already accepted to Harvard, Colby or other prestigious schools. These students absorbed the content I had for them, but would offer their own suggestions during class, saying things like “I found a great podcast about….” or “I’ve been using this website for extra practice and it’s really helpful.” They would spend hours outside of class studying our content and looking into things that just happened to interest them as well. They would bring me articles that they had found that furthered our class discussions.
My AP students treated their high school class time as just a portion of their learning. They spent hours outside of school doing volunteer or mentorship programs that related to their future college majors.
On many occasions I commented to my colleagues that I wanted to call up the parents of these stellar students and ask for their parenting secrets, and now I really wish I would have followed through. I have very little advice to offer you, or myself, on how to produce children like this. I’m hoping that it’s a combination of the skills I mentioned: teach your child that manners go a long way, that they can ask for help when needed, that it’s ok to fail at first, that most everything worth having requires a lot of hard work and that success comes from being a life-long learner.