Finally, the last bell rings and off you go to music lessons, team practice, some other extracurricular activity, or a part-time job. When you finally get home, you still have a pile of homework to do, sometimes until late at night; then, you eventually conk out. A few hours later, you roll out of bed and begin the whole routine all over again.
Of course, keeping this up for weeks and months and years is itself a big challenge, but let’s accept that right now your life is about school, and let’s turn our attention to key areas where you can be successful by using the nine tools to reduce your stress and improve your performance. What are these key areas? I call them “The Three T's": Time management, Tests, and Teachers. If you’re thinking, Wait a minute, there’s a lot more to school than those three things. What about friends? Sports? Clubs? All that stuff goes on in school too, of course you’re right. In chapter twelve we’ll deal with the social part of your life. Right now I want us to look at the core of what school is all about, which is work.
Time management is really self-management. You can’t tell the clock to wait by saying, “Hey man, hold on! I’m not ready!” No, the clock is ticking and time is passing. Time doesn’t need to be managed. You need to manage yourself so that you can effectively use the time available. This will also effectively reduce your stress because you know what you are doing with your time.
When your self-management is in gear, your time management is not a problem. I can hear you saying, “Sure, but what happens when you have so much homework that you can’t possibly get it done in the time available no matter how calm, confident, and focused you are?” This is a great question. While I wish some teachers were more realistic about the available time you do have, realizing that all your time can’t be given over to their one subject, I also know that teens (yes, and adults, too) waste a lot of time. They get distracted into other activities (texting, TV, video games, you name it). Because they haven’t managed themselves well, they start out really frazzled and it’s all downhill from there.
Here’s another key to help you manage your time well: timed study periods and timed breaks. Many students think that the way to study is to sit in a chair and bear down on their books and notes as long as they can. Wrong. Your brain doesn’t like that. Pressing your brain into unending service becomes stressful after the first hour. Its efficiency will go down and you’ll start to tire. How to resolve this? Not with coffee! Something quite simple: timed study periods and timed breaks.
The more you manage yourself before you start studying and the more you time out your work and breaks, the better prepared you’ll be for tests. And I don’t mean just the subject preparation. I mean preparing yourself to be calm, confident, and focused. Remember: you are the one taking the test. Master yourself, master the test.
The most stress-producing way you can study for a test is to procrastinate and cram, which is what too many students do. They learn how to handle tests by doing the least amount at the last possible moment. While this seems to work for many people, because it’s so stress producing it is the least effective way of preparing yourself for tests. You’re always behind the eight ball, always playing catch-up. If this is your style, I vigorously exhort you (I’m pleading here) that you start learning how to prepare in a less-stressed way. Why? Because cram-and-get-through becomes an unproductive habit and quickly turns into a stressed-out style for dealing with challenges in life. Remember, as your stress goes up, your performance goes down.
These are the most common distractions for test takers:
Unpleasant physical sensations. My heart is pumping so hard. I can’t breathe!
Negative thoughts. I can’t handle this! I’m going to fail.
Watching other people and thinking about what they are doing. I bet she understands every question. I wonder how far along he is?
Your attention needs to be on the question in front of you and nothing else. If you were in the middle of an intense play on the soccer field during a crucial game, you wouldn’t be scanning the crowd for your friend or your mother. You can’t be a distracted player on the field, and you can’t be one on a test if you want to do well.
Some people, when they go home after a test, feel so badly that they just shut down. In their isolation, catastrophic thoughts flood in. They start planning for the worst. I’ll just have to drop out of school. There’s nothing else I can do. Then my parents will make me move out of the house or disown me.
What’s the deal here? The test is over. Past. Done. You can’t go backwards; you can’t do it over again. So stop the drama and pledge that you will take what you learned about yourself and do it differently next time. And when next time comes around, do it differently. Only you can do that. Only you can transform your unproductive habits into productive ones. As the commercial says, “Just do it.”
If you want to be able to handle stress in school and be more successful, you need to know how to relate to your teachers. Like everyone else in life, teachers have personalities. They can be friendly or cold, calm or jumpy, lenient or rigid. While it’s natural to gravitate to teachers who are friendly, calm, and lenient, don’t kid yourself. A warm personality doesn’t always mean an effective teacher. At every stage of my education, I had teachers who I thought at the time were weird or jerky or out-to-lunch. But they were still effective teachers.
It’s hard, and sometimes almost impossible, for a teacher to sustain the effective attributes day after day and year after year if the students are not doing their part. The teacher-student relationship is not just dependent on the teacher. As a student, you have a fourfold responsibility in this partnership: (1) to care about the subject; (2) to be inspired to think and ask questions; (3) to pay attention in class; and (4) to come to class prepared. If you want to have good relationships with your teachers you have to do your part.
The question, “Why am I learning this?” is entirely legitimate, and if you can’t answer that question yourself, you should ask your teachers. You may not like the answer they give you, but school—and life—are not all about you liking everything. You may not have a clue why learning about the Italian Renaissance is meaningful, or why you need to know how quadratic equations work. And reading Jane Eyre may be the most boring thing you ever did. But I can guarantee that if you go through school with an attitude of “I just have to get through this,” that’s just what you’re going to get: meaningless going-through-the-motions boredom. If you can’t figure out why studying history is important (so we appreciate our roots, so we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past), or why you need to learn to solve quadratic equations (to refine your attention to detail and to learn sequential thinking), or the purpose of reading classic literature (to reflect on what is universal in the human condition across time)—if you are just going through the motions, stop! Ask yourself, What is my goal? Is it just to get through? If so, that’s not enough. School should be more than that. Life should be more than that. So start there: ask the question to yourself and your teacher. Why is this meaningful? How will this help me? Don’t stop asking yourself and your teachers until you get an answer.
Have you had teachers who inspired you? You may have had several, or just one, or none. If you have, you know just what I’m talking about. Isn’t that what most students are referring to when they say they “like” a teacher? Someone who is lively, passionate, and into their subject.
It’s great if you have teachers who are inspiring, but not every teacher is. This poses a particular challenge for the student, who has to find interest and meaning in a subject even when a teacher isn’t passionate about the material. How do you do that? Simple: think and ask questions. If you start to really think about what you are doing when you’re studying or researching, your natural curiosity will lead you to ask questions, and the questions will stimulate further thinking.
One of the worst experiences for a teacher is to look out over a class and see her students texting, talking, sleeping, looking out the window, or picking their fingernails. In other words, doing anything other than paying attention to what she’s saying. Sometimes this is because she’s not effective in capturing the class’s attention. But I’ve sat at the back of classrooms of highly effective teachers and I’ve observed students doing all sorts of things that have nothing to do with listening. Here’s a short list:
Texting or tweeting each other or someone outside of class
Talking (not even whispering!)
Organizing a notebook
Trying to find something in a backpack
If your attention is wandering, you’re going to have more stress because you are disconnecting yourself from what’s going on. Bring yourself back to the present. Use the tools. Stop the distraction. Breathe. Ground yourself. Open up your senses (sight, hearing), and start thinking about what the teacher is actually saying. Just like you want someone to pay attention to you, imagine how a teacher feels when he when he looks out over a class and sees students napping or picking their nails. Hold up your end of the deal.
One thing that drives teachers nuts is when students come to class unprepared. If you’re at home and you’re about to watch a movie on TV, you don’t have to do much to prepare. Just pop the popcorn, put it in a bowl, throw a slab of butter on it, shake some salt over it, sit down on the couch, grab the remote, and press “On.”
School is not TV. Your job as a student is to do the work before you come to class.
When you come to class prepared, you’re reducing your stress and making it possible to focus even more in class. You had a goal—to get the assignment done—and you took actions to accomplish your goal. You are bringing your contribution to the table. You are showing the teacher that you are involved and responsible, that you care. Hopefully your teacher will pick up on this and respond accordingly. Effective teachers do. But even if your teacher doesn’t, you still have to do the work. And by “do the work,” I don’t mean at the last minute. As I said earlier in this chapter, an unfortunate by-product of our educational system is that students learn to get the least done at the last possible moment.
Your relationship with your teachers is a critical component of your learning and growth. Sure, we all want to have lively, engaged, interesting, challenging teachers, and it’s a gift when we do. But remember everything I’ve been saying so far in this book holds true here: if you are counting on what’s outside of you to make your life work, your life will never work as well as it could. Even the most interesting teacher is only as effective as her students are engaged. Teaching is not a personality contest. It’s a relationship between the one who leads—the teacher—and the one who is brought forth. That’s you.
This article is an excerpt from Ben Bernstein's Stressed Out for Teens.
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