Five Keys to Turning Students into Scholars

Awhile back, I caught an interview with the director of admissions for a prestigious university. The interviewer was waxing poetic about the school’s sports program, social life and overall place in American culture when the director gently interrupted him with a reminder: All that stuff is fine, but the school is “primarily an academic institution” where learning is the primary responsibility.

Transforming students into scholars requires a strong focus on academicsI thought about that when I sat down to write about the keys to developing scholarship in our students. For all the nonacademic offerings in schools — clubs, sports, counseling, theater, band, etc. — we need to remind ourselves that we are here to help form scholars and learners.

The next logical question is: How do we do that? Here’s a framework to start from:

Develop good habits in your students

We are the sum of what we repeatedly do. This axiom of human nature applies as much to our students’ learning as it does to any other part of their life. I can pretty much guarantee that your best students have fallen into a regular pattern of studying and completing their school work, and that such a pattern serves them well.

It’s important to remember that students have a wide variety of habits — some study early in the morning and some at night; some might complete work way in advance and others may wait until the last moment. The habit doesn’t matter as long as it accomplishes two things: students return to it regularly and it helps them succeed academically.

Keep the focus on academics

School is more than just “summer camp with desks.” While schools are increasingly expected to meet the nonacademic needs of their students, you can’t lose focus on the fact that the academic success of your students is their best guarantee for success after leaving your school.

Yes, not all students operate at the highest levels on grades and test-taking skills, but maximizing what they can do needs to be your primary focus. Keep this strong by consistently returning to what you’re teaching, why it’s important for the students to learn it, and how their learning will serve them well in other classes.

Keep expectations high

Even though they are loath to admit it, your students want you to expect much of them. Now that doesn’t mean your class should be phenomenally difficult or above their heads, but rather that you should offer them appropriate challenges based on their age and ability level. Making the class too easy or not expecting a lot of them sends the wrong message about their potential and your thoughts on their future.

(By the way, setting these expectations is much easier when you spend some time gathering information on their ability level at the beginning of the school year.)

Offer strong support

If you’re going to have an appropriately challenging class, you’ll need to offer a high level of support. Tutoring, working with students during lunchtime, explaining work to struggling students and modifying your work as necessary are all actions you should take based on what you ask of them.

Creating a difficult class and then cutting the students loose to “sink or swim” isn’t the right way to help them keep learning a primary focus in their lives.

Connect with their homes

Rare is the academically strong student who doesn’t have a higher level of support at home. Yes, some students are able to overcome homes that offer no support, but this is the exception rather than the rule.

Just as you’ll spend time setting an in-classroom culture and expectations, doing the same thing with your students’ homes is essential. Understanding that parents today are busier than ever, send home a “one-sheet” that outlines the expectations of the class. Whittling your expectations down to a single sheet of paper will offer you focus, and give family at home less to absorb.

Strong, academically capable students don’t happen by accident. They are the end result of a wide variety of factors coming together to help students learn. Demystifying this process — and recognizing that you play a strong role in it — will help to give your students greater opportunity and access in their learning.

Never forget that your role in their lives is to foster a classroom that is “primarily an academic institution.”

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Brian P. Gatens is the superintendent of schools for the Emerson Public School District in Emerson, New Jersey. He has been an educator for more than two decades, working at the K-12 level in public and private school settings in urban and suburban districts. In “From the Principal’s Office,” Gatens shares advice, provides insights, and gives guidance on everything from what principals look for when interviewing teaching candidates to how to work with overly protective parents. His front-line assessments supply candid perspectives on school life.

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