Conklin October 2015I have, essentially, two expectations for my students – to be responsible and to be respectful. A couple of weeks ago marked the beginning of a new school year and my students had the chance to brainstorm ways that they can demonstrate responsibility and respect as students in their math classroom. I was impressed with the ideas they generated. A great deal of the responses related to responsibility focused on completing homework and preparing for tests, but some took the idea a step further. The idea of getting work in advance for upcoming absences was expressed a number of times; also mentioned multiple times were getting help when needed and being on time. These are all great ways to express responsibility, but if I could instill a three-part sense of responsibility this year to them, I will consider the year to be a success (and math fluency will most certainly be a by-product!).

Now to the three parts: 1) Knowing what needs to be done, 2) Doing what needs to be done in a timely manner and 3) Seeking ways to either improve upon what’s been done or continue to perform at a high level. Often, demonstrating responsibility as a high school student involves following directives from others (parents, teachers, coaches, etc.). As we gain independence, responsibility involves taking more initiative, and in order to do that, we need to know what needs to be done and not always expect others to tell us. How do we get it all done? The students in my classroom tend to be some of the busiest at our school. Ambitious and social teenagers sometimes overlook time management as a means to be responsible.

This past summer, I attended a “working breakfast” in which we heard from world-renowned physicist Dr. S. James Gates. I had the pleasure and honor of sitting with Dr. Gates during the breakfast portion of the meeting. One of my fellow attendees at the table asked Dr. Gates how he is able to be involved with and give attention to many different projects, committees, speaking engagements, etc. He chuckled, paused for a moment and then shared something quite simple, yet profound, “At any given time, whatever is getting my attention gets 100% of my attention.” Even in this age of multi-tasking, Dr. Gates’ words make so much sense. I find myself trying to accomplish multiple tasks at once, and end up taking much more time to complete these tasks often at a much lower level than had I approached each task individually. I have already been able to share Dr. Gates’ “100%” tactic with a number if students this year. The phrase “Giving 100%” is certainly more meaningful to me now.

I have already caught myself on a number of occasions this school year getting distracted as I try to give my undivided attention to the task at hand. If task is worthy of me taking responsibility for getting it done, doesn’t it deserve 100% of my focus for at least a given stretch of time? I would hope so.

Mike Conklin teaches math and computer science at University High School. He has been at PACE-affiliated U-High for 10 years, and is entering his 20th year of teaching overall. While a strong believer in individual responsibility, he is known to give gentle shoves to get students back on track.

Conklin recently received the Presidential Award for Excellence in Math and Science Teaching from the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy and the National Science Foundation.