Teaching Opinion

Success, What Exactly is it?

By Starr Sackstein — January 14, 2018 3 min read
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Success, like beauty, has begun to feel like an amorphous ideal defined differently depending on who you talk to.

So when we talk about student success, agreeing upon what that term means and what it looks like can be quite difficult.

Perhaps success should be measured in progress, considering first the starting point of each learner and then demonstrated growth over a period of time and then the continued applied learning from there.

Of course, when we try to define something that can have no one definition, we get ourselves into a bit of a jam.

In an effort to make success more efficiently measurable, educational systems have implemented a plethora of standardization efforts in order to norm the data. Unfortunately, every learner is a variable and therefore using data in this way is flawed from the start.

As I continue my new leadership journey, one of the biggest challenges I have is the struggle to help my team ease their worries about testing expectations and accountability and real student learning that engages and inspires students to define and experience their own successes.

Of course, this isn’t a new struggle; while I was teaching, I often toiled with the expectations of the state and my schools’ and what I knew to be best for my students. In the beginning, I worked in earnest to get every child on the same page to meet my sometimes unreasonable expectations only to be disappointed by their lack of effort or interest.

At first, I vehemently blamed the students, angry at how little they seemed to care about their learning. Blaming apathy and laziness. Blaming. Blaming. Blaming.

It got me nowhere fast.

But I continued down that path for the earlier part of my career. Defining my success, sometimes by how many students I failed because of how rigorous my courses purported to be.

I was mistaken, of course. Embarrassing as that realization was when it came it hit me like a freight train and I quickly realized that the damage I had already done could not be undone. I didn’t know any better. Based on my own expectations and definition of success, I dutifully raised the bar and demanded all my students be just like me.

The only problem was they weren’t.

Now 17 years later, my earlier teaching career serves as a powerful reminder of why we can’t do what we have always done. As school leaders, we can’t allow our mission for education to be about creating uniformity, but rather encouraging students to define success in terms that resonate for them and then offering them the experiences they need to achieve it.

This world we live in now no longer resembles that one that I grew up in 23 years ago when I graduated from high school in 1995. Yet our expectations for students are still the same. We measure our success by how many of them graduate traditional programs and enter and complete college degrees.

Although I played the game well and was able to manipulate the outcomes to support what success looks like for me, I’m not sure I was satisfied with my learning experiences. And now, the longer I play this education game, the more I suspect that we are missing the mark. We shouldn’t be promoting formal education as the only way to become successful or even educated. We must promote a growth mindset and then develop and nurture each child in the way that makes sense to him/her.

Before I knew what a growth mindset was, I lived it. I still live it. Devouring opportunities to learn, I eagerly dive into new situations both excited and passionate about identifying needs and fulfilling them as well as building relationships. Breaking away from the accepted norm, I dove into the deep end and started challenging institutions that I once longed to be a part of.

And now we’re at a turning point. In Ken Robinson’s TED talk, “Bring on the Revolution”, he talks about how we can’t just reform anymore, we must transform. This idea resonated with me.

We are the moment, on the precipice of a need for real transformation. The system doesn’t account for the different needs of students and still seeks to define success with a single pathway. This is a broken ideal and the sooner we move away from it, the better learning institutions will be for all students.

There can be no single definition of an ideal such as success, so what does it look like for you? How does it differ for your students? or your team? Please share

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