“…one of the most important things a student should take from his education is a sense that he must do things properly, according to whatever rules pertain to the situation at hand.”

Tina Blue, English Professor, University of Kansas

When Grant, my youngest child, was in high school, I finally admitted to myself that I had no interest in teaching science. Grant’s motto in life was something along the lines of, “Don’t worry; don’t hurry; be happy.” Slightly concerned but desperate to free myself, I signed him up for chemistry online with The Potter’s School, in one of my finest decisions as a homeschool mom.

His teacher was Mrs. Arny. That lady changed our lives. She didn’t just teach chemistry, although she did that very well. She taught life skills. Her schedule was laid out for the entire year in extreme detail, and she stuck to it. Weekly homework, tests every other Friday, and quizzes on the alternate Fridays. Lab reports had to be thorough and strictly according to conventional form. She didn’t threaten or nag, she just set the schedule and the expectations and she assumed the students would meet them. So when Grant’s spring break choir tour conflicted with a regular TPS school week, he didn’t even bother to ask for an extension. With a prodigious effort, he worked ahead and turned in the homework and test before he left for his tour. This was highly unusual behavior.

Although I also have very clear schedules and expectations for my writing students, I hadn’t been quite so successful in applying the strategy with my own kids. I needed Mrs. Arny to be the pleasant but non-negotiable enforcer. It was my job to make sure he stayed the course, and sometimes he needed me more than at other times. Maybe some students didn’t meet her clear expectations, but Grant did, and earned a B that we were both proud of. The class did him a world of good: it pushed him to work hard and be responsible, and helped him realize what he was capable of.

An ongoing theme that I emphasize continually throughout all my classes is the future expectations the students will encounter in college and work. I want them to understand why I am so particular about how things are to be done. Writing skills are definitely important, but they are not the only important goal. Another important goal is that they will learn to manage their work and follow directions. Professors and employers appreciate such students and employees and tend to give them good reviews. They stand out because so many people make excuses and don’t follow directions.

English professor Tina Blue writes about that very subject in her article, “The Importance of Manuscript Form.” She says,

          Do you think I am too picky?  Probably a lot of my students think so.  But
I don’t think so.
          Quite apart from the fact that improper manuscript form greatly complicates the already onerous task of handling, marking, and sorting several hundred papers, and recording grades for them every semester, there is also the fact that one of the most important things a student should take from his education is a sense that he must do things properly, according to whatever rules pertain to the situation at hand.
          Most of the actual subject matter of their courses will fall out of their heads soon after they leave school–and in most cases much sooner than that.  But they should also be learning habits of mind and behavior that will enable them to adapt to the requirements of whatever job they end up in after school.
          Employers don’t want excuses.  They want performance.  And they expect their employees to work according to specified standards.  The same student who turns in sloppy, improperly formatted essays is likely to turn in reports or other projects that do not meet his employer’s standards…
          Whether the problem is carelessness or incompetence, it is most certainly a problem!  The fact that so many college students don’t follow explicit instructions for preparing their formal academic assignments should be a matter of concern…  because a large part of functioning as an adult consists of doing what you are supposed to do, the way you are supposed to do it.

When we are working on skills that are awkward, frustrating, and time consuming, such as MLA formatting and citations or new style techniques, I encourage the students: “Just think! This is so hard right now, but you are going to be SO HAPPY when you are in college and you already know how to do this! This is going to be natural for you, and you can spend your time working on all the new stuff that you don’t know yet. And your professors are going to LOVE you because they aren’t going to have to spend extra time grading your papers!”

And you know what? That is usually exactly what happens. 🙂

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