Nan Austin

Retired teacher tips: Every kid’s guide to straight A’s

Despite the super-student reputation of the Academic Decathlon, teams include students with a range of grade averages who all work together to master the contest material. Here, contestants show they are finished before the correct answers are read at the Super Quiz portion of the Stanislaus County Academic Decathlon, in this Bee file photo from 2015 in Modesto, CA.
Despite the super-student reputation of the Academic Decathlon, teams include students with a range of grade averages who all work together to master the contest material. Here, contestants show they are finished before the correct answers are read at the Super Quiz portion of the Stanislaus County Academic Decathlon, in this Bee file photo from 2015 in Modesto, CA. naustin@modbee.com

Over the last few years education in California has had head-spinning makeovers in standards, teaching style, technology, funding and discipline norms – a virtual administrative tornado – all with the goal of helping more kids succeed.

But much of what makes students successful has to come from within, an ingrained understanding that bulldog tenacity, an insatiable curiosity and a smile are kid superpowers. Not every boy or girl gets that encouragement after a setback, or mashed up with sports analogies watching a ball game.

So for all those students feeling a little lost or a lot behind, here is some collective wisdom from classroom veterans, a Grade School for Dummies compilation of what works to get the grades.

1. Get it together

The night before: Lay out clothes to wear and, ready to grab on your way out, whatever needs to go to class.

Come prepared: Have homework done. Eat breakfast. Read ahead. Organize papers or virtual files so they are easy to find. Sit down when class starts and be ready to work.

Keep a paper calendar: Write down assignments with due dates. Also write it on the due date. If it is a multi-part assignment, write down each part on its due date.

Always, always turn something in, noted John Toepfer. “If it is a semester project and you haven't even started it until the night before it is due because of whatever excuse for laziness can be mustered, start the assignment! Better to turn in what appears to be a lousy outline and some notes with your name at the top of the page than to turn in nothing.”

Not turning in anything is “practicing how to fail by habit,” said Toepfer, a graduate student who got my email to retired teachers through his dad, former Beyer High counselor Jim Toepfer.

2. Work smarter

“Don't just start reading. Find out first where the material is taking you,” Toepfer wrote. “Scan over the entire chapter first. Look at the headings of the different segments within the chapter. Read the questions at the end of the chapter.” Once you know what the questions are asking, read with purpose.

Save debate for later, when discussion can help your grade, he counseled. “Do not fight the information if you disagree with it. You are responsible as a student to demonstrate mastery over the material, not your opinion of the material.”

“Memory is in the fingertips. Write stuff down,” he advised. If the pace is too fast, just scribble down the nuggets, he said.

Read all the instructions, all the way through, stressed retired teacher Jim Sterling. “You've likely seen the exercise where the No. 1 instruction is to read all the instructions ... followed by a list of ridiculous tasks (stand on your chair and say your name backward) with the last instruction being: ‘Now, if you've read all the instructions please do nothing and sit quietly while your classmates who didn’t follow instructions make themselves look silly.’ ”

3. Best Foot Forward

Step up: Take the lead in group work, including labs, said retired science teacher Michael Kennedy. Be cooperative. Show confidence.

Speak up: Volunteer answers. Ask questions. Join in discussions. Ask for clarification on instructions when needed.

If something flops, look for why. Showcase where it went wrong with what should have happened. Mistakes happen – teachers are looking for what was learned.

Show the teacher your first draft and ask how it can be an A paper. It is OK to ask for help and to show initiative. Helping you learn is what most teachers are dying to do.

4. Show up

There is a saying attributed to Woody Allen: “Showing up is 80 percent of life.” In gym class it might even count as 100 percent of the grade.

Even when an absence is excused, missing a day means not hearing the math lesson and having to work twice as hard to figure out the homework. Two absences a month make you a chronic absentee, a measure schools watch.

Showing up also matters for parents. As retired teacher Jerry DeYoung put it: “When we had parent advisement at our school almost every parent of an A or B student showed up. Very, very seldom did I see a parent of a student that was failing the class, except maybe before graduation when that student wasn't going to make it across the stage.”

Here is how Toepfer summed it up: “Choose to accept this simple truth: The education you get to keep is the one you make an effort to get for yourself. Education is not an activity where we show up and, by osmosis, walk out with a downloaded new set of information for our use.”

My thanks to retired teachers who answered my call: Jim Sterling; Michael J. Kennedy; Jerry DeYoung and son of a retiree John Toepfer.

Nan Austin: 209-578-2339, @NanAustin

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