A few years ago when I was a junior-senior high school principal, I always posted our school academic honor rolls outside my office. I also mailed home a personally signed letter of congratulations to the family of students on the various honor rolls. Besides the honor rolls, we also recognized students whose academic progress improved at least five points over the previous quarter. Sometimes that meant improving from a 62% average to a 67% average. Not great but an improvement. Letters of congratulations went to the families of those students as well.
I remember one winter afternoon when I was posting the honor rolls. We had three levels, highest honors, high honors and honors. It dawned on me that day that the top student in the tenth grade had been on the top of the highest honor roll for the past year and a half. I wondered what her secret of success had been. I decided to find out.
The next day around two o’clock I had our school secretary call Regina to my office. Ordinarily when a student gets summoned to the principal’s office, it’s for a pretty high level infraction that is so serious that it bypasses the assistant principal who makes his living dealing with routine disciplinary issues. So when Regina walked down the long hallway from the secretary’s desk to mine, she walked slowly and look very, very somber. When she reached the front of my desk I, in an equally somber mood, told her to be seated. Then, because I’m really not a bad sort of guy, I broke the ice and told her that I wanted to personally congratulare her on her academic achievement this marking period. She looked relieved to say the least.
But I then told her that I wanted to ask her a question. She said, cautiously, “All right.” So I asked what the secret of her success was. I told her I wanted to know how she managed to be in the number one spot on our highest honor roll every quarter since she started ninth grade.
She thought for a long minute and then said simply, “I pay attention in class, I do all my homework…and I study for my tests.” I said, “That’s it?” She said softly that, yes, that was it. I thanked her for that information, congratulated her again and sent her back to class.
I gave Regina’s success formula a lot of thought in the following days. It made sense. And I have used it dozens of times in speaking to students and to parents. Of course, I elaborated on each point. It usually went something like this.
Students need to pay attention in class. When I speak to parents, and to teacher groups as well, I always stress the point that the class has to be in a teachable mode. If there is chaos in a classroom day after day, not even Einstein would be able to concentrate. Teachers must insure that the atmosphere is conducive to student concentration. Parents need to complain to the principal if that doesn’t seem to be the case in a particular class. Believe it or not, sometimes principals know this sorry situation exists but are hesitant to do anything about…until pressure from parents is put on them.
Students need to do homework. I know that the whole notion of assigning homework is often controversial but I believe that homework, when it is assigned properly, serves an enormous benefit. It must be regular, it must not be overly lengthy, and it must be collected and recorded. Homework reinforces the day’s lesson. Not only that, but it also affects positively retention of the material taught. But it must be done by the student…every time it’s assigned not just “most of the time.” Further, it must be done to completion.
Students must study for tests. This can be a really thorny problem for students and parents. What does “studying” mean? It can be as simple as re-reading the lesson covered today, or this week or these past two weeks. Reviewing old tests in preparation for a major exam is useful. Student study groups can be powerful learning experiences if they function properly. Properly means the group of three or four must ALL be serious students who are not getting together to talk about the latest movie, sports contest or rock star. The time spent in group study must focus on study…questioning one another, asking one another for help or explanation.
In a nutshell, this is my sermon to students and parents and, sometimes, teachers. It’s simplistic but it works. And I thank Regina everytime I give a talk on studying and success in high school.