It has been first-day-of-school picture time on Facebook, with the annual gallery of munchkins clutching the latest in backpacks and holding up signs displaying their year in school. Moms of high school and college seniors even posted “last first-day” pictures! And I am feeling downright ancient this year to realize our passel of “grands” includes a first-grader, a high school freshman, a high school senior, and everything in between!
As something of a “school mom,” I often encountered unexpected teachable moments in the form of lessons about life that simply could not go unaddressed. It should come as no surprise that once in the 70’s, I yelled in frustration at a class of juniors: “You’ve got to get cracking! The year after next you’ll be on a college campus!” I remember no details, just exasperation at some gaping gap in life readiness.
I frequently thought about my students in the future tense. As time rolled on, I even found myself warning the freshmen: “The year after the year after the year after next…”
In honor of the new school year, then, I am sharing a few Shirleyisms collected over forty years of teaching. I regularly dispensed these nuggets of wisdom in amongst vocabulary words and verb tenses. Although my advice skews toward college-bound kids, young people headed for the workforce or the military will soon enough face similar slap-in-the-face, wake-up-call experiences.
Shirleyism # 1: The higher your numbers, the more choices you have. Numbers for high school students include GPA, class rank, ACT/SAT scores. Some colleges admit kids with low-to-middling academic statistics. However, school options and scholarship opportunities expand in direct proportion to better grades and higher college entrance exam scores.
And students should plan to do their best the minute they enter the hallowed halls of high school. Many upperclassmen have regretted the folly of a misspent freshman year.
Shirleyism # 2: Figure out your study skills in high school when education is basically free, not later when it costs thousands of dollars a year. Most high school teachers will help with everything from note-taking to test study. Kids who work hard to be prepared every day will be well-equipped to adapt their high school study habits to university-level work. College is a lonely, scary place to learn how to study.
I also think every college prep junior or senior should take at least one course at a local college through the Post Secondary Enrollment Options program (PSEO) and at least one online course. Exposure to a higher level of work is beneficial, and almost every recent college graduate I know had to take a few online classes to complete their degrees. It pays to be prepared.
Shirleyism # 3: College grades are often based on one mid-term exam, one final exam, and one paper. High school teachers usually grade several types of work: homework, class participation, quizzes, tests, projects. Most college instructors, however, base final course grades on far fewer assignments carrying far greater weight. It is a difficult transition, but one which college freshmen must make.
Shirleyism # 4: If you don’t read the textbook because the professor never mentions it, the exam will cover the text. If you read every assignment but often miss class, the exam will cover the lectures. It is a fact of university life, the collegiate version of Murphy’s Law, if you will.
A related suggestion involves any syllabus distributed to college classes. High school teachers do lots of reminding: paper due next week…test on Friday…remember tomorrow’s class presentations. By contrast, a professor may never refer to the syllabus again, but students are nonetheless responsible for the entirety of its information: lecture schedule, due dates, required materials.
Shirleyism # 5: You can receive a crummy education at Harvard and a great education at Podunk U. It all depends on YOU! Prospective college students, and sometimes their parents, can be swayed by the glitzy glamour of universities with great traditions, reputations – and football teams. Any high school kid with a PSAT score will receive piles of glossy brochures– at the very least – from colleges hungry for tuition-paying students.
But no tradition, no Final Four potential, no beautifully-appointed dormitory suite or mouth-watering meal plan can ensure success for a party-hardy student with casual study habits and fuzzy career plans. Better to ground and organize oneself for a year or so at a local two-year school than to flame out the first semester at a huge “name” university.
By the way, prospective students and their parents should actually visit the college before bills start arriving in the mail. As touching-feely as this concept may seem, kids need to feel comfortable on the campus where they will be living.
Shirleyism # 6: They don’t know you’re coming if you don’t tell them. Submit the application! I am still amazed by the number of students over the years with lofty plans and goals who never quite got around to actually applying to any educational institution.
The same is true of financial aid forms and scholarship applications. No organization awards funds to even the worthiest of students without supporting paperwork. Anyway, most applications these days can be completed and submitted online.
I sincerely wish every student at every level, from preschool to graduate school, a successful and rewarding year. We all want the very best for you as you head toward your futures!