Now before you assume I’ve encountered the stereotypical high school nerds, you need to know all eight of these students are varsity athletes. One of them is part of a National Championship dance team; another is a nationally ranked cross country runner. In addition to sports, they are involved in a variety of organizations and clubs in their respective schools. These young people appear to be well-rounded teenagers with diverse circles of friends. They are not “geeks” with pocket protectors and masking-taped glasses; from all outward indicators, they are the embodiment of student success.
As an experienced educator who has encountered many promising students who failed to reach their potential, I had an opportunity to discover the differences between those who thrive and those who don’t. My goal was to identify commonalities among these highly successful students to discover why these high school seniors succeeded at such a high level while others fall miserably short of the mark. With an electric sense of anticipation, I met with the students who agreed to answer a few questions about their school experiences. Let it be noted that this is not an academic study; it’s merely the result of a candid conversation between a curious teacher and academically successful students and should be taken as such.
My goal was to identify common factors that contributed to their academic accomplishments, in the hope of replicating their experiences for a larger student population. The results of our conversation surprised me, and my guess is you may be surprised as well.
Commonality #1: Opportunity
Not surprisingly, these students were encouraged by respected teachers to enroll in rigorous classes. Being identified early in their upper elementary and middle school years as a student who showed academic promise served to build confidence and, as a result, students tended to invest more effort in harder courses. Being challenged relatively early helped shape each students’ perception of himself or herself as a capable student. Some expressed a desire to “live up to her expectations.” Most shared that this early academic nudge was critical in building a foundation for a successful secondary school experience.
As it turns out, enrollment in more rigorous classes resulted in exposure to new ideas, which in turn led to a thirst for deeper learning. Coupled with encouragement and opportunity, students developed ownership of their learning and began to seek out opportunities independently to learn more about the ideas that interested them.
One student mentioned the “caliber” of students who comprise advanced classes as compared to students enrolled in college-prep or remedial course offerings as being “more focused” and “competitive,” resulting in less wasted class time and fewer behavior-related distractions. Advanced students challenged and motivated each other, not requiring teacher/parent-initiated motivation.
Interestingly, none of the students interviewed identified their parents as a contributing factor in pushing for rigorous coursework. Parents were reported to be encouraging and supportive, but not the reason these students selected advanced courses.
Students expressed an internal commitment to push through challenges. They used words like “stubborn,” “hard-headed,” “obsessive,” and “organized” to describe themselves. Most of them attributed the strength of their internal drive to their participation in competitive team sports. Additionally, they stressed the advantage of diverse interests-not being solely focused on academic success. Participation in team sports is a way to combat stress, manage time, prioritize responsibilities and build collaborative relationships. They recommend a focused plan for success that included physical, spiritual, intellectual and social pursuits.
Commonality #2: Relationships
Not surprisingly, all of the students interviewed attributed much of their success to the cultivation of positive relationships. Teachers who had the greatest impact on them were the those who took a personal interest in their lives and demonstrated that interest by speaking to them directly in hallways, in the cafeteria, at sporting events, etc. Several students mentioned a teacher asking them to stay after class for a minute to share positive, personalized feedback and push for individualized growth in a particular area. One of the students shared the memory of her third grade teacher asking her to stay after class for a moment, then asked to enter her writing in a contest. When their teachers identified and shared a specific area of academic strength, students were motivated to build on that strength. By pulling a student aside, and sharing personal, positive feedback while challenging students to seek out opportunities to showcase their strengths, teachers maximized their influence and contributed to each student’s success.
While the students expressed appreciation for the teachers who sought them out for personal interaction, students acknowledged their own responsibility in initiating conversations with teachers and recognizing when they needed to ask for help. All believed that building positive relationships with their teachers was a critical factor in their success.
All students appreciate personal attention, so high-performing students are no different; however, through our conversation, I noticed that authenticity seemed to be a common thread among teachers who had the greatest impact. When students were exposed to a teacher’s life and passions outside the classroom walls, the teachers gained credibility, and students appreciated the fact that their teacher “practiced what he preached.” Examples were given of science teachers who conducted research outside the school context, and of English teachers who were also authors. Teachers engaged in their field of study outside the classroom resulted in increased student buy-in for the content and value to recommendations from their teachers.
Not only were relationships with teachers found to be an important factor, but peer relationships were also determined to be essential to student success. Students reported strong, committed relationships with like-minded peers helped hold them accountable, challenged them to push harder, and kept them from making destructive decisions. Life is hard, they told me, having someone who shares your values to talk through some of the tough stuff with helps tremendously. It should be noted that several members of this particular group of students had been together in some form for twelve years.
Commonality #3: Resources
Here comes the bomb drop. I had written the entire article above, but when I began to write about resources, I had an epiphany, and I’m sorry. I realize that I am part of the problem, and I want to change. I have a hunch that those of you immersed in the world of equity and opportunity for all students may be slapping yourselves on the forehead and shouting, “Well, duh!”
I would be remiss if I did not address the availability of resources to this group of students. Their schools are well-maintained; their textbooks are up-to-date; their classrooms, media centers, and science labs are well-furnished with state-of-the-art equipment. Their homes are warm or cool, depending on the season; there is always plenty of food on their tables, there is gas in their cars; they’ve had opportunities to travel and access information and opportunity that are not available to all students. Their families’ financial resources have provided an environment free from worry and stress that plagues many high school students. None of these students are breadwinners for their families, nor are they the primary caregivers for their younger siblings. Each of them drives his or her own, well-maintained car to school each day. In fact, all eight students come from intact, stable, two-parent homes with a strong network of extended family and supportive friends.
Wealth, inherent white privilege, and a safe, stable home life have given these students the distinct advantage over similarly gifted peers. These students know the playing field has not been level. They know they’ve had a distinct, undeniable advantage that isn’t due to anything they’ve done beyond being born. Their awareness and sense of responsibility to social justice, and their willingness to leverage their advantages to join the fight for equity, impressed and amazed me. Do us all a favor and don’t dismiss, disregard, underestimate, or deny them. They are the partners with whom to link arms and walk alongside the marginalized students who’ve been denied voice. What could happen if the problems faced by our under-served students included solutions generated by those who’ve been served, or better yet, what if we worked on solutions together? The battle will not be won by drawing lines of separation, but rather by drawing circles of inclusion.
Watching students serve together in Nicaragua piqued my curiosity, and what began as a desire to identify commonalities among high achieving students resulted in a renewed commitment to advocate for equity for all students, and a passionate resolve to make sure students recognize the factors that contributed to their own success and their responsibility to advocate for others.
I’ll close with a quote a wise woman shared with me today: Diversity is seen; inclusion is felt.
Questions to Consider:
What suggestions do you have to narrow the divide between students of privilege and students of need?
Do you think it’s important to address diversity and equity issues in the classroom, and what are some ways you might do that?
What would need to change in your school to maximize academic success for all students?
Amy serves on Knox County’s PD Redesign Team and the Superintendent’s Transition Team. She has been a Tennessee SCORE fellow and recipient of the 2016 PTSA Tennessee Teacher of the Year. As a 23-year “veteran” classroom teacher, Amy has taught at the preschool, elementary and middle school levels and is currently teaching 7th grade English-Language Arts in Knoxville, Tennessee. She’s a graduate of Carson Newman University. She’s also the founder of Reach Them to Teach Them, an organization committed to appreciating, inspiring and challenging teachers to maximize their influence in student lives. Amy has a passion for using her time and talent to leave the world better than she found it! She also serves as a Hope Street Group Tennessee Teacher Fellow, engaging her colleagues in providing classroom feedback to the Tennessee Department of Education on public education policy issues.