In my new book, one of the 10 strategies I feature is “Define Success Wisely, Early, and Often.” This made the cut from my initial list of over 50 strategies because, for most students, success is a deeply ambiguous and murky thing. And for many others, success is an overly simplistic thing, like “all As.” In both kinds of student heart — those with no clear definition of success and those with grade-focused ones — accessing motivation for learning is very difficult. And so, it is my job as a teacher to make success something that we think about with increasing clarity and wisdom as the year progresses.
I know, I know — that sounds a bit dense. So let me share one simple tool that has made a big difference.
“The Four Pillars of High School Success”
My colleagues Chris Painter, Melissa Damico, Eddie Johns, and I came up with these several years ago through some focused discussion. How could we teach ninth graders to think of success as something each of them could access, each of them could value, and each of them could keep working towards no matter their preparedness or ability?
We ended with these “four pillars”:
- Academic Success
- Social Success
- Plan for the Future
- Enjoy the Process
Back when we created them, we were on a team focused on helping ninth graders transition well into high school, and so we had this whole data analyzation process for checking students' progress toward these four things.
And with students, when we spoke about these four pillars, we were very explicit on what they meant to us:
- Academic success: at least a 2.5 GPA for all students and a 3.0 or higher for students seeking dual-enrollment opportunities in tenth grade.
- Social success: participating in some kind of club, sport, or activity (e.g., hallway decorating at Homecoming).
- Plan for the future: a clearly stated articulation of the student's current, rough-draft plan for high school and beyond.
- Enjoy the process: laughter, learning to work efficiently so you have more time for fun, and practicing good self-care habits (e.g., sleep, recreation, etc).
Nowadays, I don't define these so explicitly with my students, but I do teach them at the start of the year and reinforce them relentlessly via things like mini-sermons, warm-up reflection questions, and the occasional end-of-lesson circle.
Depending on your school or grade level, your mileage is going to vary on these things — change them how you see fit.
But DO take seriously the need to define success for your students — wisely, early, and often.
For much more on this strategy and nine others, see The Will to Learn: Cultivating Student Motivation without Losing Your Own. Here's what MTSS Director Dr. M. R. of Michigan had to say recently about the book: “Our School Leadership Team is reading The Will to Learn this summer and I have seldom seen this group be more excited about the learning!”