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  • Study smart, not hard.

    Prioritize homework based on urgency and accountability. Perhaps in an ideal world you would read every single word that's assigned and discuss it at length with your nerdy friends, but in the real world you have to work differently. If there's not a way you'll be tested on it, drop it unless you have extra time. With what's remaining, do it in order of when it's due.

    That first tip was focused on the game, but this next one is valuable for any kind of learning, even self-driven learning apart from school: learn how you learn. It's no good to drill a concept over and over again on paper or to painstakingly read every word of something if you're not coming away with a deeper comprehension of the subject and a stronger position for further learning. Step back, read headings, scan, read slowly, write out concepts before plowing forward, talk to your friends and family about what you're learning... just try different things and see what works. I think this is a skill I honed in the piano practice room. It's frustrating to try to learn something the way someone else says you have to. But it's freeing and actually fun to approach something with patient curiosity and just play with it. As Youtube yogi Adriene would say, "Find what feels good."

    • Really like this. The first tip ("If there's not a way you'll be tested on it, drop it unless you have extra time. With what's remaining, do it in order of when it's due.") is about winning at the game of school. The second tip is about really winning at the game of school -- that is, having school become a vehicle for the true accomplishment of learning how to learn. You learned it playing piano (I think you're referring to what's knows as "deliberate practice"). 

      I use this exercise with teachers where I ask them what was an experience in their life where they had a transformative learning experience. We list those experiences, then we list the conditions that led to them. The list of conditions is always fun and long and... almost always very similar across different groups of teachers. For example, a common one is: "Someone saw potential in me and encouraged / pushed / helped me." I then ask them, how many of these conditions are a part of their current teaching environment. It's pretty noticeable that testing is never on the list. Nor homework. Nor most of the things that we focus on most of the time. I call this "The Conditions of Learning" exercise and I wrote it up for someone once:

      Conditions of Learning
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    • This is a great exercise! Thanks for sharing. I'm learning through conversations like this (and through books centered on inquiry-based learning, like Warren Berger's A More Beautiful Question and Ann Pelo's The Language of Art) how important it is to stop and remember how to ask questions. Often it seems that what we teach in school is how to answer questions, but as students get into higher levels of education, we expect them to be able to ask good questions. I think schools are taking a turn toward inquiry- and problem-based learning, which is fantastic for encouraging discovery!

      Thanks for the reminder to start refining our teaching practices with asking the right questions.

    • I've got Berger's book at the top of my to-read pile... thanks for the incentive!

    • Any time! It's a great book!

  • I would say that the best thing you can do to win at the game of school is, ironically, need no attention from teachers. At most public schools, teachers are overworked, and have easily thirty to fourty kids per class. Your goal is to be as high performing AND as unobtrusive as possible at the same time.


    I vividly remember being in high school, and I had finished my math worksheet and was reading quietly at my desk. The teacher was stressed, and snapped at me to put my book away -- so I did, but I also chose to "punish" her by then acting out, since I was done with my work. I started talking, distracting other students, fidgeting, going through my backpack, making noise and taking up space. I was careful to pitch it below how annoying the MOST annoying student was, but high enough above my normal behavior to be irritating.


    And it worked -- the next time I finished early, and started to read, nothing was said because her real goal was to just get through the day. I think most kids instinctively grasp, somehow, that school is a game -- we just tell them it isn't because it's cruel to tell a child "stop needing things." I still don't have a great way to conceptualize this to students.

    • Hi, Hannah! That was an unexpected response, but I get it! So, maybe the rule is "figure out what your teacher needs." Counter-intuitive for most students to take care of the adult, but if you said to them: "Do you know how you have to figure out what will work with your parents? Same with teachers..."

      For that teacher, yes, quiet and making it easier for her. For another teacher, it might be coming up afterwards and asking, "what can I do for extra credit?" Or, "can I help with something?" For the chapter on this, I want to call it, "How to win friends and influence teachers." :)

    • Exactly -- to "win" at school, you need to just be attentive to what the adult in the room wants. Do they like their homework this way? Or as Chris commented, do they only respond to students dressed a certain way? Do they want a quiet classroom? (Almost certainly). I don't even know that comparing teachers to parents is a good choice, since you can push parents MUCH farther than you can push teachers. How to win friends and influence teachers is exactly it. 

  • I was told this in high school myself (83-87) and it still rings true today: Dress nicely and the teachers will cut you slack. In my Freshman and Sophomore year, I dressed like a "punk rocker". I had teachers make wise comments to me (one teacher told me as I was distracted out the window, "you'll never graduate at this rate". My grades weren't so great.

    In my junior year, a new friend's mom, a teacher, told me "You know, all you need to do is wear a polo every day and keep your hair neat and you'll get better grades". I decided to call her on that line of BS and the first few weeks of my Junior year, I wore my "church" polo shirts, talked respectfully to teachers, and kept my hair cut short. With NO change in my studying or classroom participation, I got better grades. Significantly. College worthy. 

    • Hi, Chris. Thanks for this. I got a reply on my blog to my original post that my concept of helping kids "win the game" this was was "chilling." I'm trying to decide how to respond because I think this person missed my point. How do personally approach this? How much do you tell students that school is a game, and do you have a way of communicating something higher than that--like how that translates into really becoming more individually capable and in control?

      The Game of School
      A few years ago I gave a talk on education at a conference being held at Google's main headquarters. I expressed my concern about the small...
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