I’ve taught for over two decades and I know what makes winners
Public high schools are a microcosm of the world today. A mini-society complete with winners and losers. Winners and losers at “their jobs” — in this case, education. And winners and losers at people. And though the teens I teach are not quite mature adults, they are human beings. And I have learned through twenty years of teaching and forty years of life that the skills to success are the same no matter the age.
So let me fill you in on the secrets so you don’t have to visit my high school to see (there’s a lot of drama and teenage angst you could probably do without). But alas, once again, the same is true of life.
Stephen King says that “talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work.”
And I’ve seen enough table salt in my job to fill most of the salt shakers in the world. I’ve seen gifted students who ace their end of course tests but who have report cards whose highest numbers are in the forties of fifties. I’ve seen students in ninth grade who read at a college level and fail their English classes.
I’ve also seen children of average intelligence graduate high school with Associate degrees and enter college as sophomores instead of freshman.
What separates these students? The winners from the losers? And what can we learn about how to be successful from them?
The number one thing?
For example, last year I was paid to stay three days a week to tutor adolescents that needed help on their English courses or that were in danger of failing their end of course tests. Each time they stayed, they got one point added to their lowest test grade. A measly one point.
Two to three students usually attended. Two-thirds of them were not failing students who needed the extra points to pass, but some of the highest achieving students in the whole class (and by class, I do not mean my class, I mean their grade level class). I had one student who wanted to improve her 95 average and stayed 34 times out of a total of 42 sessions. There was no missing work she had to make up, no danger of failing, so we worked on AP concepts she would need next year or ACT practice tests which would up her chances of getting into the extremely elite colleges she wanted to be able to enter.
So what can you learn from this?
Success is going beyond “good.” It’s wanting to be great and realizing that hard work is the only thing that will get you there.
And yes, I suppose that parents of lower-performing gifted children may say that their students’ low grades are because they were not engaged or challenged. That may well be true. But education of some sort (and I am not referring solely to education in school)is a step that most people have to take in order to achieve what they do want. And people who succeed in life understand and accept that they must climb these requisite steps on the stairwell to success if they want to be the best.
Children who succeed in school not only work hard, they work hard every day. There are many bright students who coast on their natural intelligence with C’s and then write an essay at the end of the semester that would rival a college senior with a double major in creative writing and journalism. Their grade jumps because they turned in a masterpiece on the last assignment but the learning that they could have acquired if they had worked hard the whole semester is gone. And so is some of that extra knowledge that will be useful next year in their next English class. So to continue my metaphor, they climbed the step needed to move forward, but their lack of consistency will make the next step harder to ascend.
Success means daily commitment, not seeing hard work as a hobby that you engage in when your back is up against the wall or you get a fleeting moment of motivation. It is “showing up” every day and “giving your all” all of the time.
I tell my students all the time to feel free to “bug me” if I forget to give them their makeup from an absence or if they don’t understand a concept in class. And successful students are the ones that always take me up on my offer. They ask questions. They check to see if they are correctly following the instructions for an assignment. They call others in their class or email me if they are absent to see what they have missed that day so they can do it at home to avoid being behind.
And in my teaching experience, I know that not all teachers welcome questions. They get irritated. Or frustrated. But the students who are successful, risk wrath at the hands of these teachers anyways. They know that if they are going to achieve the grade they want, they need to get the information needed. They know gaining information and facts from others who are knowledgeable about things that they aren’t is a necessary step they must take, so they look to the experts.
And if the experts' answers aren’t as clear as they would have hoped, they “ask” other “experts.” They do research online, watch Youtube videos on the subject, or ask other teachers in the same subject area to help them. They ask to stay after school to get one on one help.
No successful person has ever reached success without going to the people with the “know-how” that will help them climb the stairwell to success. Successful people know you can’t be afraid of criticism, and you can’t be afraid to ask people who “have been there” for advice. After all, those people have already climbed the steps that they are seeking to climb. And helpful hints never hurt.
Many times teachers will grade assignments or projects on a student’s creativity or ability to think or “outside the box.” However, attempting these “out of the box” assignments are dangerous: they have the potential to fall flat because there are no certainties when you are trying something that no one else is.
Students who are successful accept the challenge. When directed to express their learning from a novel, they write a play instead of the sadly conventional five-paragraph essay. They create a blog for a character or a game based on the book rather than doing a poster board activity where they cut and paste pictures.
They register for higher-level courses that other students warn them are run by Hitleresque teachers who assign hours of homework.
The same is true of the student-athletes I teach. They try out for varsity as freshmen. And even though varsity usually only plays juniors and seniors, they ask the coach to put them in the game just for two plays so that they can show what they can do.
How does this relate to success in life as a whole?
Being successful is about being brave enough to risk failure. Being confident enough that someway, somehow, you will overcome the challenges in front of you even if you are not initially successful. Being courageous enough to be different, to go against the grain of popular thought.
Play well with others.
This aspect of success is probably close to the most important if not the most important step on the ladder to success. These children are kind and respectful. When they fail a test, they don’t harass the teacher with rolled eyes or nasty comments. When they make a mistake, they apologize. When they see another’s students work, they give words of praise instead of working to find flaws to make themselves feel better.
Because let me tell confess and tell you a teacher secret. We try to be consistent with our students but each time we are asked to break the rules — whether that means letting a student take a retest after the allotted time or turn in an assignment after the last day, subconsciously we remember the character of the person who’s asking. And for those students who play well with others, it’s so hard to say “no” that sometimes we say “yes.” I know it’s not fair. But the truth is character matters. It opens doors that remain locked for people who are insensitive and uncooperative.
For example, you probably know geniuses at work that never get promotions. Why? They can’t work with others. They’re arrogant. They get angry when given constructive criticism. They make offensive comments to others at work meetings.
These actions matter. No one wants to help someone who is nasty, stubborn, or immature. It all goes back to “getting what you give.” And as my students would say, when you give “shade,” you get “shade” back.
The bottom line:
We’re really all still in school. And life is a series of lessons we must learn if we are going to make the most of the talents we’ve been given. And success comes quicker when one sees the common path trod by “the greats,” and some of their footsteps can be seen in those ideas I listed above.
No, the road to success is not one-size-fits-all, but it does have rules.
But don’t take my word for it.
Listen to a true “great,” Albert Einstein, who says of success, “You have to learn the rules of the game, and then you have to play better than anyone else.”
So, what are you doing sitting there? That’s not one of the rules. And it’s not helping you get to the top of that stairway to success. So, roll up your sleeves, get out of that chair, and get started accomplishing your dreams.