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Dear Senior High School Students of America:
Congratulations! You made it. You are finally at the top of the heap. Enjoy it because it won’t last long. You will blink and your fall finals will be upon you. You will blink again and you will be sitting in graduation gowns walking across the stage. Blink once more and you’ll be saying goodbye to your hometown, starting the odyssey of a college career, or beginning your life in the work force.
But no matter what classes you are taking or what your dreams may be, there are certain habits that successful high school seniors seem to share. After seventeen years of teaching seniors, I can argue confidently that if you follow these seven steps, there is a high probability your senior year will be looked back upon with fondness.
#1: BUY A PLANNER. Senior year is a busy time. Tests. Assignments. Deadlines. Senior pictures. Senior Announcements. College applications. A normal human being cannot keep track of dozens of balls in the air. Moreover, dates and deadlines often change. If students don’t keep a somewhat orderly record of their responsibilities, then it is easy to get overwhelmed. Avoid this at all costs by getting organized as early as possible. Trust me, this is good training for adult life when work, marriage, children, and goodness knows what else is on your daily list of tasks.
#2: LIMIT YOUR DEVICE TIME. I asked my students last year if they could travel back to freshmen year and give some advice to their younger selves what it would be. The class valedictorian’s answer was powerful: “I’d find a cliff somewhere and throw my phone so I could never retrieve it.” A lot of the students readily nodded in agreement. Nothing makes an hour disappear faster than engaging in the monotonous minutiae of social media, YouTube, and whatever else allows our students to swipe, like, and view meaningless morsels of empty banality. They know their phones are a true hurdle to self-actualization. They know they can’t really read, study, or work with their phones in their laps. And yet, we know what these devices are doing to this generation of students. Don’t let it happen to you.
#3: DON’T OVERCOMMIT YOURSELVES: Life is stressful and senior year is no different. A common mistake of ambitious high school seniors is to overcommit. Sometimes it is taking a schedule of classes that is too rigorous. Sometimes it is participating in too many activities. Often seniors quickly become overwhelmed with the realization they are not giving anything their full attention. Be realistic in your commitments. Make sure the classes and activities you love can be given your full focus when they require it.
#4: HAVE “THE TALK” WITH MOM AND DAD EARLY IN THE YEAR: No, I’m not talking about the birds and the bees. (Hopefully, that happened before you were seventeen years old!). I’m talking about college and money. One of the saddest parts of teaching seniors is watching tension mount between graduates and their parents as no one has been clear about who is responsible for paying for college. Parents tell their children to apply wherever they want. The child gets into their dream school with a hefty price tag. Mom and dad break the bad news that there is no way to pay for the dream school and resentment ensues. If your parents can pay for NYU . . . great! If your parents are kicking you out of the house the moment you turn 18 then at least you know what to expect. Parents should make it clear early in the year about the level of financial support their children can expect from them in terms of college tuition and other costs. This is not worth ruining the relationship between you and your parents.
#5: RESIST NEGATIVITY. It is healthy to be excited about graduation. It is great to be pumped about starting college. But there is nothing cool, edgy, or interesting about a cynical, smug, snarky graduating senior. Trust me, your teachers have probably seen every manifestation of “senioritis” under the sun. The truth is this: there is never a bad part of life to learn, to grow, to be the best human being you can be. There is never a bad time to change direction if you don’t like where you are headed. And there is never a good time to be indifferent and jaded, immune to the possibilities that might be presented to you as you graduate from high school. Graduate on a high note. If not, you’ll probably regret it when you get older.
#6: READ AT LEAST ONE BOOK THAT ISN’T A CLASS ASSIGNMENT: The most interesting people in the world almost universally have two habits: they read a lot and travel a lot. Most seniors aren’t in a position to travel widely but there is nothing better for your brains, your spirits, and your disposition than to immerse yourself in a world beyond your own. It doesn’t matter if it’s fiction or non-fiction, serious or silly, find at least one book to read that YOU want to read.
#7: ALLOW YOURSELF TO HAVE SOME (OR A LOT) OF FUN: You only get one senior year. Go to football games. Go to the dances. Think of all the activities you haven’t done in high school and resolve to do them. Because whatever else senior year is, it is rapid in extremis. A sad but necessary corollary to this is to remind seniors to make good choices. The culture might tell you that drinking, drugs, and sex are the province of seniors, but the truth of the matter is these are temptations that almost always lead to regrets, sadness, and even tragedy.