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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Don’t Be Defined By Who You Were in High School

By Peter DeWitt — November 22, 2012 5 min read
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Failure is something to learn from, not run from.

The other day I ran into a guy I went to high school with which seems to be a lifetime ago. The first thought that came to mind was that it was over twenty years ago. Then I thought about how quickly life goes by. It doesn’t seem that way when we are younger. When we are young, life ticks by slowly as we wait to become old enough to drive or graduate from high school.

Although we both only live about an hour from where we grew up it was the first time I had seen him since we went to high school. It’s funny how running into someone from our past can make that same past come rushing back at us. We’re both a little grayer and have put on a few pounds. I walked away thinking how much I have changed and he probably walked away thinking the same thing.

Most high school students long for the future but they may believe that the life they live right now will not change much. They lack the crystal ball of experience that we have as adults. There are kids who are worldly and get exposed to many life changing experiences through their parents. However, most kids do not have those luxuries. The reality is that our high school years were important to our growth because we spent so much time there and most of us didn’t know anything different than our surroundings.

There are many students who spend most of their formative years in the same town and lack the money to travel and get experiences that teach them how different a life can be when they grow up. Although it feels as though that time in our lives is the most defining moment we may ever have, it is important for students to remember that they do not have to be defined by who they were in high school.

My high school years, although important, lacked any stellar academic achievements. I graduated near the bottom of my class, and was completely lost when it came to a future. If schools of education really had the requirement that you had to graduate in the top third of your class (like Finland), I would not be an elementary principal. There were moments when I was young that I thought I would never leave my hometown and I certainly felt as though I would never be a positive contributing member of society (I think of Shawn Colvin’s song Someday).

These days students can have defining moments that hurt them. Those defining moments can label them with a bad reputation. Everything is so instant and one bad split decision on Facebook, Twitter or in a text can impact their life in such a bad way. If you were perfect when you were young, you probably never had to worry about these issues. I was far from perfect and I shudder to think of what my life would be like now if Facebook was around. When you’re young you don’t think of how every decision will affect your future.

Profound Impact
Although there were a few coaches and several teachers who profoundly impacted my life in a positive way; it was my family who gave me the support to move on. If students are fortunate, they have supportive family members who tell them that life can be different. Those parents talk with their kids about getting a trade or going to college and finding a passion.

In their formative years, students will come across a few teachers and adults who are not so kind. I had people who made sure I felt as unintelligent as I thought I was at the time. Their words impacted my life because I believed what they said about me. Their words either inspired me to do better or crushed my hopes. Teachers and administrators have an important job because they not only educate students about subjects, they can teach them about life.

It’s important for educators to remember that students are young, even when they are in their teens and seem more wise than their years. Many of those students believe what their teachers and administrators say to them, which means they believe it when a teacher tells them something cruel. However, they also believe it when a teacher or administrator offers a helping hand or a kind word. Many kids are insecure when they hit their teens and it is up to us as educators and parents to help them change those insecurities.

Kids need to remember the following:
They will have defining moments - There are moments in life that are defining. It may be a positive experience like getting a job or meeting someone special. It can also be a negative experience like a death or the loss of a job. All moments, whether good or bad have the ability to teach us something about ourselves.

They must learn resiliency - Giving up is really easy. It’s getting through a tough experience that is hard. It’s important to be resilient and not give up. Being resilient helps us move forward when others can’t.

They need to learn from failure (Benefits of Failure) - Failure is something to learn from, not run from. No one sets out to fail but some people don’t try something new because they are afraid of failure. Failure can teach us a great deal about who we are and I say that from personal experience. I have seen hard times, gotten passed over for jobs, and didn’t always get what I wanted. Sometimes not getting what I wanted was much better than when I actually did get what I wanted.

They should be gracious with success - In high school there are those young men and women who seem like they have been given a special gift. They are good looking, smart and have a talent in something (i.e. sports, drama or music). Remember that there may come a time when life is not kind and those in high school who seemed as though they had nothing to offer suddenly have a lot more than you do. Be gracious to them now because you may see them in a different circumstance in the future and you want them to remember you were kind.

In the End
It may sound strange but the world is bigger than high school. We as adults know that but not all kids do. They may see movies that take place in foreign lands or read books where the story is set in other continents, but many kids don’t really get a glimpse of the bigger world until they enter it. High school is an important time in life but it’s not the only time. Unfortunately, for some students they need to get out of high school so they can truly understand who they are.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.