I have a PhD. I have taught at university for 5 years in Australia, and at a professional postgraduate program in Canada. I have an honours BA from one of Canada’s top universities and graduated with distinction. I’ve received nearly $100,000 in scholarship funding and a bunch of university awards. I have spoken around the world, including at Stanford, Microsoft, SXSW, and TEDxPerth.
But guess what!
I was kind of a crap high school student.
I did well in a few subjects, but generally my grades were just okay.
I felt that no matter how hard I worked, I still got the same disappointing results.
And sometimes, I got terrible results. In my last year, I bombed my final physics exam.
I would’ve failed the whole class if it hadn’t been for the fact that I was on the school’s Quizbowl team, which also just happened to be run by my physics teacher, affectionately known as Mr. Boo.
One afternoon before a tournament, a friend and I were chatting with Mr. Boo and we came up with wacky idea for our major assignment: I won’t bore you with the details, but it involved throwing plates from the school roof, doing math on the pieces and then emailing some researchers in Denmark with the results.
Since most high school students don’t discuss their experimental results with international physics researchers, Mr. Boo was impressed enough that he gave us a grade so spectacular (98%!) it brought up my average enough to pass the class.
I didn’t realise it at the time, but this was beginning of my transformation from a crap student to an awesome one.
Decoding hidden expectations
Most people think success is simply about hard work. This seems like a pretty reasonable belief, right? But, if you look at top performers, both in school and in the professional world, you quickly realise they know something you don’t.
Succeeding in school — succeeding in anything really — is not just about hard work. And sometimes the hard work is the less important bit.
One of the keys to success is understanding and mastering hidden expectations and skills that, funnily enough, are never formally taught in school.
In my case, the hidden skill I was learning was how to communicate and build a good relationship with my teacher. It was a skill which served me well over and over again, and was key to helping me transform into an awesome student.
So, let’s put everything together. How did I manage to get nearly 100% in my physics final assignment? It wasn’t just hard work, it was because I had accidentally started behaving like a top performing student, which changed two things for me.
The first was that I was now getting better information and guidance. By working closely with Mr. Boo, my friend and I had a clear sense of what he was looking for in the assignment. He gave us feedback as we went along, so that when we submitted the final assignment, many of the things that would have brought down our grade were already addressed.
Sharing my progress with Mr. Boo meant he saw how hard I worked on the assignment itself, which he would not have known if I had simply handed it in at the end. This probably helped our grade as well.
The second bit was a bit more subtle, but perhaps more important.
By building a good relationship with Mr. Boo I helped him to see me as a whole person, not just a grade or a number.
He could see that even though I may have failed an exam, I was not necessarily a lazy or unfocused student, which is what most other teachers had concluded about me. Through my conversations with him and my participation on the quiz team, Mr. Boo saw that I had potential and gave me a chance to improve my grade — a chance I had never been given before. Without it, I probably would have failed his class.
Talk to your teachers!
Throughout the high school and university years, I saw a direct correlation between my grades in a class and the quality of my relationship with the teacher.
By communicating and building a good relationship with my teachers, I was able to:
- Get more extensions while staying on the teacher’s good side (unfortunately, asking for an extension, even if it’s totally justified, often sends the message that you are a disorganised, poor student)
- Do better on assignments because I had a clearer idea of what my teacher wanted (there are many things teachers look for that they often don’t explicitly include in assignment descriptions)
- Get better support when I was unwell
- Getting access to more opportunities both inside and outside the classroom to improve my grades and advance my career
Your action steps
Now it’s over to you with an action you can take right now, regardless of where you are in your studies. This approach works best for classes with a lot of writing, but your mileage may vary.
Pick a class. Perhaps it’s one you’d like to do better in. Before you do your next assignment, make an appointment to see the teacher (either in person or over Skype if you are studying online), explaining that you want to make sure you turn in a really strong next assignment. Make sure you have read all the assignment requirements and go in with some smart and informed questions about what they are looking for. Better still, go in with some initial ideas about your assignment and use the time to brainstorm with your teacher and get some initial feedback.
If you get the assignment back and are not happy with your grade, you have another opportunity. Make another appointment to get clarification on your grade and the teacher’s feedback. Again, make sure you have done the work and read and understood the feedback and have some well thought out questions about how you could do better next time.
Not only will you get really useful feedback and a clearer sense of what the teacher is looking for, you will help the teacher to see how engaged and hard working you are. On your next assignment you’ll not only have a much stronger assignment, but you’ll also have their good opinion of you now working in your favour.
I would love to hear from you!
Have you noticed better results in classes where you have a better relationship with the teacher?
What were your results with this approach?
Do you have other tactics that worked well for you?
Share your experiences in comments, or contact me directly.