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Defining Success in the Classroom

Defining Success in the Classroom

As educators, we measure things. We measure state test scores, attendance, grades, and more. However, when we think of successful students, and about what that success looks like, the first response isn’t typically measured by grade. There are correlations between good grades and postsecondary success to be sure, but aren’t there other, arguably more important factors that students need in order to be successful? If so, why aren’t we measuring those factors?

Much of what we see as facilitators of success are nonacademic factors such as being a good colleague, having tenacity, holding a good work ethic, and developing the ability to solve problems and to think critically. Are we measuring success or even considering these skills as part of a successful classroom? If not, then why not? These ideas beg a series of related questions. What does success look like at the end of a 50-minute class period, at the end of a week, or at the end of a school year? And when you consider these questions, it becomes clear that this is a matter of perspective. How do you define success?

Building a Definition of Success

Before establishing what success means for the classroom, it’s critical to look at the school community’s definition of success. Success of the school, success of the classroom, success of the instruction, and success of the students must start with a common definition.  A school must develop common language regarding success and some indicators of what success means. This is not a quick or a single conversation, and it may take a while get everyone on the same page before it can really become part of the fabric of your school culture. This may take multiple conversations.  From there, teachers create the culture in a classroom. Everything teachers do should be done with intent, articulating what success means is no different. 

So, now that we know where to start as we think about success in the classroom, we can work on the definition. Admittedly, the bulk of the popular literature on this subject focuses almost entirely on success criteria as derived from the business model. Essentially, something is a success when the outcome is desirable or favorable.

Other Measures of Success

Beyond that, the definition of success can be personal unless you are in the classroom. There, success is often based on test scores and student outcomes. Or is it solely related to those measures? When asked, teachers fiercely defend the definition of success as being child-centered not necessarily score-centric. If we take the measuring stick away, how do you define success? Consider some interpretations:

Not all success is measured by others. The definition of success varies. Coming up with a definition that really reflects the classroom or school values can be an exercise in unlearning.

Success is understanding the difference between needs and wants. If you can meet your monthly obligations and fulfill your basic needs, you are successful.

Success is taking care of yourself. What are your personal goals? Are you ensuring your own well-being?

Success is overcoming fear. Conquering a fear makes you feel invincible. Even if it’s confronting just one small fear each week, that is certainly something to feel proud of.

To create a healthy classroom dynamic, there are many different elements that should be given careful thought for student success. These elements can include skills such as self-monitoring, cooperation, goal setting, and engagement.

Measuring Your Definition of Success

Finding the path to success is just as elusive. Success may be simply starting on the path. The journey itself can also mark success. Success could be simply creating the belief that, with effort, you can cultivate growth. Accomplishing skills can represent a successful day in the classroom as much as getting high marks on a quiz.

To begin developing the language of success in the classroom, start by observing the definition. Then remove anything and everything that is actively taking away from, limiting, or preventing success. This must happen within the confines of school policy but think hard about actions that are no longer necessary or subtract from the journey. Determine what certain changes can be implemented that will support your classroom or school success. Do this with accountability. Add some deadlines or benchmarks to keep yourself accountable and to give structure to your plans.

Try teaching the growth mindset. This includes teaching the power of the word “yet.” For example, the phrase “I can’t do this” becomes “I can’t do this yet.” When educators look for success of a student (however it is defined) with a growth mindset and teach this approach to their students, students grow as learners by understanding that, with effort and perseverance, distinctive theory of success is accessible.

Try taking five minutes to collect as many words or images as possible that represent success. Engage your students in the process as a lesson or teacher exercise. Every student, classroom, and school is different, so the list might be long. This is a way to recognize multiple definitions of determining success and explore how the participants view it.

Test scores are important measures and part of the fabric of education, but consider some of the alternatives. If you are experiencing happiness, love, or adventure in this moment, you’ve already found success. If you look at the journey as part of the experience of success, congratulations. If you are learning and growing based on that journey, you have already found success. Keep it up.

For more information and tips about the soft skills that are central to postsecondary success, check out this blog post on social-emotional skills to learn for the workforce.

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Winnie O'Leary

Winnie O’Leary has spent over 25 years in education, as a classroom teacher, school board member, a family advocate, special education teacher, curriculum writer and currently a Curriculum Manager for Edmentum. Her experiences have allowed her to work with districts all over the country where she finds something new and exciting every day.