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Ask a Teacher: From Bookworm to Social Butterfly

Ask a Teacher: From Bookworm to Social Butterfly

Q: I used to be a straight-A student (and very shy) during my freshman year. But now I am a sophomore and I am falling behind. I'm not as shy as I was before, does this mean I have to go back to hiding in a shell to get my grades up?

A: First, congratulations on coming out of your shell! Overcoming shyness is often very difficult, but the rewards are pretty great. As you've learned, though, those rewards come with a price. I'll tell you right off the bat that you absolutely don't have to hide away again to get your grades up. Instead, you just have to surpass one of the most difficult obstacles facing every young adult.

You have to learn time management.

There are only 24 hours in a day, and to be a healthy teenager, you should spend about one-third of that time (if not a little more) sleeping. School accounts for another eight hours or so, leaving only eight hours per weekday for homework, extracurriculars, jobs, eating, hobbies, and a social life. That is a shockingly small amount of time, especially when you're out having fun and not necessarily paying attention to the demands of the clock.

Here's the wrong way to do things: throw the clock out entirely, figure "I'll get everything done," and let some aspects of your life flourish at the expense of others. That's the strategy of your peers who get top-notch grades and show up to every practice for a dozen extracurriculars but sleep through half their classes, or your peers who go to a different party every night and don't seem to care when they're repeating freshman English for a third time.

As much—and I think, as obviously—as that's the wrong way to do things, it seems awfully common. There's a reason for that: planning is hard, and spontaneity is fun (until it catches up with you). It's especially difficult for teens; there's a lot of development going on in your brains all through adolescence, especially in the parts of the brain responsible for long-term planning, assessing risk and benefit, and becoming socially conscious.

In short, the neurological deck is stacked against you. You are hard-wired to cave into peer pressure, and to decide that the benefits of another hour of fun with friends outweigh the risks associated with bombing that term paper. In order to balance the different aspects of your life, you have to outsmart your own brain. Here are some tips on how to do it:

Keep a planner: Most high schools provide students with handy-dandy planners or handbooks pre-marked with important sporting events, holidays, and so forth. If it's gathering dust in the bottom of your locker, now is the time to take it out and put it to work. If you don't have one, buy one—and use it! It should at least keep track of all your homework assignments and their due dates. If you have a job, incorporate your schedule as far in advance as you can. If you know about other significant events, fill those in too. Your planner is there to help you plan, which means it's there to tell you what you need to do and how much time you have to do it. Knowing those two things is vital, because they determine everything else.

Use your study hall: If you have a study hall during the school day, use it for its intended purpose. The more homework and studying you get done while you're still at school, the less you have to take home and worry about when you're outside the building. Moreover, you're at the school. The teachers who can help you if you need help or clarification are right there, in a way that they probably aren't when you're at home. It's a small, simple thing, but I see a lot of people who treat study hall like another lunchtime social hour. That's an hour or so where you're already confined to a classroom, set aside specifically for you to do work. Squandering that just means you're going to have to spend another hour doing the same work, when you could be doing fun things anywhere outside a classroom. Don't waste that time.

Eat your vegetables: While a balanced diet is essential to healthy living, what I mean here is that sometimes you have to do the things you don't like before you can do the things you do like, just like when you were a kid and had to eat your vegetables before you could have dessert. When you get your work done early, it's done, which means you don't need to worry how long it might take or how much sleep you might lose doing it. It's no longer hanging over your head while you have fun, ruining your good time with its ominous inevitability. Set aside time when you get home to do all that homework while you're still in school/work mode. Once you flop onto the couch and start channel surfing or firing up the XBox, you're going to be in relaxation/play mode, and it'll take a considerable amount of effort and discipline to get back to work.

This also applies to longer assignments. Don't assume that you can do all the research and writing for your term paper on the Sunday evening before it's due. Portion out the work for bigger assignments over a longer period of time. You'll end up doing more earlier, which means stressing less and spending less time later—and in all likelihood, doing better work overall.

Network: You're not the only person in this position. Find friends and classmates who also want to do well, and plan times to work together—homework clubs, study sessions, whatever. This way, you can combine work and socialization, and build a safety net of people who will encourage you to succeed and exert a little positive peer pressure. Just don't forget to work.

Say "no": This is the hardest part. There are going to be times when your friends want you to hang out, and there's some work that really can't wait. Saying no to your friends, taking the risk of missing out on some major event that everyone will be talking about on Facebook, of looking like a nerdy stick-in-the-mud, it's tough to do. But you're going to have to learn some self-discipline, and that means occasionally saying "no" to your friends and sticking to it. There will be other nights to hang out; there may not be other nights to study for the Biology final. Your friends should understand that you have other obligations, and they shouldn't hold that against you.

If they do hold that against you? It may be time to find new friends.

Learn from experience: A lot of people don't learn the time management lesson until they're in college. Suddenly they're bombarded with a whole bunch of new stimuli, they're surrounded by people who also haven't learned time management skills, and there's no authority figures around to tell them to go to class or do their homework. Eventually, those people learn to manage their time—maybe while sitting in the computer lab at four o'clock before the final paper is due, maybe after flunking a couple of semesters and losing thousands of dollars in the process.

Learning this lesson in high school gives you a head start. You'll hopefully head into college or the real world with valuable experience in networking, delaying gratification, and avoiding the occasional temptation. But the real benefit in high school is that you don't have to go it alone. You have a ready-made set of training wheels for learning how to manage time, someone who will look over your shoulder and tell you to go to class or do your homework. You have one or more parental units. For most of your life, they've been scheduling your activities, setting boundaries, and providing discipline, the very same skills you're trying to develop. They've spent years trying to get you to do what you need to do; learn from their experience.

Be flexible: To paraphrase Robert Burns, "the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry," and that goes for high school students, too. You could be the most disciplined person ever, planning out every minute of every day,  but sometimes the unexpected happens. Maybe it turns out that you misread the directions on an assignment and have to re-do three days' worth of work. Maybe your best friend suddenly has an extra ticket to see your favorite band, and they're only in town tonight. Maybe you catch a cold and have to spend twelve hours in bed. You can't plan for everything, so you have to be able to adapt, and that often means making some tough decisions. You have to weigh the risks and benefits, evaluate the possible outcomes, and sometimes make some real sacrifices. Maybe that means that you have to turn down the concert the night before the big test.

And you know what? Maybe it doesn't. Hopefully they won't take away my Very Serious Grown-Up license for this, but sometimes doing the fun thing is worth the consequences. Sometimes it's okay to blow off work for a night, or stay up late to finish something important. The key word there is sometimes. You can't habitually indulge one aspect of your life at the expense of others—whether that aspect is your social life or your work. If you shirk the work one night, you need to accept that the consequence is working twice as much the next day to get it all done.

In life, few things worth having come easy. Maintaining a healthy social life alongside all the other things you have to do is a lot of work, and the lesson of time management is one you'll never stop learning  But by starting now, you'll have a leg up on your peers, and you'll be building an important skill to help you through the rest of your life. Good luck.

Mr. Foss is a high school science teacher in Illinois. If you start himtalkingabout comic books, there's a good chance he won't stop.

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Topics: Life
Tags: teachers, homework, friends, high school, stress, advice, time management, hanging out, ask a teacher, social life

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