Becoming a College Learner

After hearing a lot of noise, I looked out my classroom window. I laughed and then immediately groaned before going to find the 9th-grade coordinator. She was already on her way to find me because she’d seen it too: Twenty-seven students, the first-ever group of 9th graders at our established early/middle college located on a university campus, laughing and bonding with each other as they moved to their next class. What made us groan was their physical position; they were meandering down a wide walkway while college students, staff, and faculty were attempting, and failing, to get around them in the usual rush to get to classes and meetings.

While many schools emphasize their college readiness curriculum and college acceptance rates, early/middle colleges emphasize their college and post-secondary program completion rates. These accomplishments require different skillsets. Although not every student has access to an early/middle college, our educational system can learn from early/middle college programs about how to prepare students to not only enter college, but to complete it.

College and career environments are very different than traditional high school environments, and for students to truly excel after high school, they must be taught soft skills in addition to academic ones. Teenagers are still growing and learning. They still need guidance and direct instruction in expected behaviors. They need people to believe in their abilities. And they need cheerleaders and mentors when they want to change the world.

Consider the idea of a growth mindset in regard to high schoolers. College and career training programs expect students to monitor their own learning, seek help when needed, manage their time, and behave in a professional manner. These are learned skills, and we need to teach them in school. In many high schools, if a student has a socially acceptable reason for not being in class, they are excused from the work. That action does not model the real world. As an adult, when I miss work for any reason, my boss doesn’t excuse me from my work. Instead, I am expected to provide plans for a substitute teacher and be prepared when I return.

We can model these real-world expectations in school by teaching students how to make the best decision for themselves and how to manage their commitments. If a student has daily, early afternoon athletic practices at their district high school and games during the middle of our school day, we work with them to develop a time management plan, advocacy skills, and the ability to make decisions that benefit them. Sometimes they miss the beginning of practice to remain in class or to meet with teachers after school. Sometimes they arrange alternative transportation to practices and games. And sometimes they miss class for practice or games. But in all situations, they are responsible for completing the missed content. Students can come to Math Lab or our Study Center after school; they can use office hours before school, during lunch, or after school; and they can use peers and other community members to support them. In learning to manage their personal needs, education, and extracurricular activities, students are gaining a skill that adult society expects them to have—one not taught or required in most high school settings.

Students are typically not entirely successful in practicing these skills on the first try. We expect them to continue practicing these soft skills while they are in high school, so that they have strategies in place and have internalized these behaviors by the time they enter college classes. We know that brains have plasticity—people can learn new things with practice. We also know that teenagers need and want to develop a sense of independence within the safety of their support structure.

I want my students to learn how to manage their time to get the results they want when they are in my class, not when they are in their first job or first college class. I want them to learn how to run a meeting and disagree with someone’s proposed solution when they are discussing linear equations or logic statements, not when they are short-staffed or something is broken at work. Those situations are stressful enough already. Teaching our students strategies for working through tough situations and allowing them to practice these strategies in a supportive, constructive environment prepares them to demonstrate these skills independently in their postsecondary lives. With these skills, in addition to their academic knowledge, students will not just get into college or be hired for a job, they’ll be able to thrive.

Gina Wilson is Math Department Chair and a CORE Advisor at the Early College Alliance in Ypsilanti, Michigan. She is a National Board Certified Teacher in Mathematics, a Michigan Educator Voice Fellow, a Collaborative for Student Success Media Fellow, and former finalist for Michigan Teacher of the Year. She is currently completing her doctorate in Education Leadership, holds a Master of Science in Chemical Engineering from the University of Michigan and has previously worked as an environmental engineer. Her presentations include mathematical content and pedagogy, soft skills, and preparing students for post-secondary success. Follow her at @GinaWilsonNBCT.