We teachers wear a lot of hats, even in high school. I’m sure that it’s easy to imagine a kindergarten teacher helping students with runny noses and 1st grade teachers helping with tying shoes but that doesn’t stop once students are “self-sufficient.” Looking solely at my schedule it would appear that I’m preparing my students to understand a myriad of themes of US History as well as understanding Economics and that’s it. However that’s just the beginning. We don’t just teach some state-mandated content; we demonstrate what a good citizen and professional look like. We model the behavior that is accepted by society in life after high school. We prepare for the rigors of higher education. On the last point is where I’d like to dwell today because it’s a balancing act that goes underappreciated in our field of work; how do I teach content in a way that my students aren’t blindsided when they get to college? How can I support their budding maturity but also embed the work-ethic and self-motivation that universities covet?
Honestly this may be a selfish topic as my schedule actually puts me in a minority of teachers in my building. I teach AP US History as well as Honors Economics, both of which are college-prep classes. This means that the vast majority, if not all, of my students have plans to go on to college within the next 2 years. Because of this I feel a great responsibility to ensure that they get a head start on the rigors of college without punishing them for not being psychologically or academically prepared for them at age 16. This balancing act dominates the majority of my time and energy when planning lessons and assessing my students. For example for every high stakes assessment I offer some sort of assignment that can act as a balance in case the student isn’t prepared to write essays for 45 minutes. Often this assignment will take the form of something that they should be doing anyway such as Cornell notes or a thoughtfully constructed graphic organizer. This allows for them to use the feedback from the exam for what it is and rest easy(ier) knowing that their performance hasn’t ruined their grade (since they’ve been conditioned to focus solely on that arbitrary percentage). I’ve also tried to make sure that my students are prepared for the amount of writing by assigning a myriad of essays and articles that require in-text citations. I don’t assign these with the idea of sifting through the citations with a fine-tooth comb making sure that the MLA or APA format has been followed, their dual-credit ELA teachers can do that, but I do want to make sure that they practice using outside sources in a meaningful way to prove arguments.
That said, I’m left with the dilemma of making this tight rope decision; how much rigor is too much and how many supports are too many? Usually, in some way, shape, or form, I leave this up to them. By getting to know my students’ needs, strengths, and weaknesses I can better gauge how much stress is too much and how much assistance becomes enabling or academically unrealistic. Cultivating a meaningful relationship is, in my opinion, even more important in college-prep classes. This is because the majority of students are on track to finish in the top of their class and they feel such an overwhelming need to perform at a high level that they are willing to plagiarize or resort to academic dishonesty before letting any deficiencies be noticed. When this happens it’s on me, I’ve not done a good enough job of selling the relevance and importance of the task to the students. Furthermore it highlights the need for teachers in my position to nurture a sense of persistence and contentment with failure with the understanding that nothing is earned without difficulties and nothing is learned without mistakes. This cannot be achieved in an environment in which failure is maligned and trying isn’t worth the effort. This type of environment has to be cultivated from day one and students need to be reminded what is truly valuable – their learning.
Yet I may be their last example of this before they head to college and I can’t help but wonder if I am setting them up for failure by elevating expectations? Next I talk to a friend that works in academic support services at a local university to get his take on students and their expectations of their teachers after high school; the professors.