"The graduating class of 2011 was the most successful group of students in the history of UCLA; they just keep getting better every year." These words, spoken at last Friday's graduation at UCLA, are still resonating with me as I am reflecting upon the momentous weekend. I am quite sure that my response to this comment was atypical. Naturally, I am proud as heck of my daughter for all of her achievements, but I am also thinking about the bar that has been set for the students who will be following her. This baseline of comparison, so to speak, has been gradually creeping up every year of my teaching career, and the impact is as follows: Stellar students with amazing accomplishments now often view themselves as "normal" or "average." Extraordinary is no longer readily acknowledged nor recognized because the students who indeed are in this top percentage of our student "pool" tend to cluster with other students like themselves. Thus, their baseline for comparison is a warped and inaccurate representation of the norm.
The fall-out of this dilemma, odd as it may sound to an outsider, can be low self-esteem. Yes, some of my highest achieving students feel the most downtrodden and disappointed in themselves because they have set their personal standards so unreasonably high that they have difficulty achieving them. In addition, rather than merely striving to be the best one can be, our test-driven and numbers-based society makes it all too easy for students to feel compelled to compare themselves to each other on every level, after every test, project, presentation, as if each of these grades defines who they are as a human being. Even the best of friends may secretly be in constant competition to be the best, as if that will give the "winner" internal power over the group. It is an unhealthy reality in the lives of many students, and not one that they should be blamed for. No one would choose to be this anxious and self-deprecating.
As educators, mentors, guidance counselors, parents, and friends of young adults, it is unconscionable for each of us not to address this critical issue. Taking the time to focus upon a young adult's strength of character, moral stance, creative mind, and kindness of heart should be a priority for all of us. After all, do any of us adults choose our friends because of the GPA that they earned in college? It is enticing to get caught up in the societal definition of what makes the perfect teen, but what is it that we really want for our children and who do we want them to become when they are adults? This quest for achieving "beyond extraordinary" has no end in sight. Taken in the literal sense, the goal is infinite, and can never be attained, and thus will always leave a person feeling inferior and unfulfilled.
So the moral of this story is that, students, you are good enough, just as you are. Every year when I start to work with the Seniors on their college applications, some of my top students have difficulty sharing their strengths because they don't view themselves as spectacular, but they are. You are. Juniors, don't worry about what everyone else around you is doing. If you are navigating your way through IS, then you are doing just fine. End of story. Sophomores, this is a year of transition. The courses become more challenging, the homework load increases, and the goal should be to focus upon time management. The rest will fall into place. It may not feel like it at the beginning of the school year, but if you stay on top of your work, everything will be okay.
Parents, help your child focus upon his/her talents, no matter what are. Not all students shine in the same way. What a boring world it would be if they did! Help your child stay organized. Eight classes is a lot to keep track of. Celebrate the successes and try not to dwell on the failures. Our students need our support more than ever. Think about what brings your child joy.
High school educators, consider not grading on a curve. There will be plenty of time for that competitive game later on in life. Setting high expectations and clarifying how they can be attained should be sufficient for most courses.
Finally, and most important, all adults should show our teens some respect. Our students are hard working, they are resilient, and they are loving. All that they want is acknowledgment for their efforts. Perhaps if we adults provided our children with more encouragement, they would stop looking to their peers as a baseline of comparison, and feel more confident celebrating their individual attributions. Perhaps they would realize that there is an element of extraordinary inside each of us, and that we should all define stellar in our own unique way.