Defining Success

I am struggling with how to define success. Not for my students, but for me. Lately, I’ve been brooding. Not unhappy necessarily, but… pensive.

In my mind, I keep coming back to Chris Lehmann’s Letter to a Young Teacher. Wonderfully inspirational. It was exactly what I needed when he wrote it. However there is one part I still can’t get my mind around.

You learn that you can’t reach every kid. And you never really learn to be o.k. with that.”

How does one learn to be okay with not being okay? I know I can’t reach every student, yet I keep trying. The students who are failing or aren’t doing as well as they could be. These are the ones I think about, on whom I focus as I’m reflecting upon my day. I know they have other things going on in their lives that are much bigger than not passing their math class. I’ve talked to their parents, their counselors, their other teachers. Should it make me feel better that mine is not the only class they’re failing? It doesn’t.

I know that I have no control over the choices they make. What I don’t know is how to balance not giving up and not driving myself crazy with worry. I worry about the freshmen. There are moments when I just want to shout, “You’re fourteen. How can you give up on life already?” I worry about the seniors. “What are you going to do in college next year ?” Admittedly the students about whom I worry are a very small percent. The majority of them will be fine. Somehow this isn’t enough for me right now.

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7 Responses to Defining Success

  1. Joanne says:

    It is easy to be ‘glib’ about how we view the young people we care for. Something I have learnt, if you constantly give of yourself and worry, then you cannot be effective. How do you define success? Well sometimes as teachers we will not see the success in front of us. I have had students that came back to me 5 / 6 years later, the ones I thought I had not reached, and sometimes it takes them time to realise their own potential. We cannot define success of others, no matter what their age, they will define that for themselves.

    All we can be are teachers and the greatest teachers make differences.

    So we have to be kind to ourselves and also learn that we cannot give everything or there will be nothing left of us. Caring for others requires care of oneself first.


  2. missprofe says:

    Every morning, I say a prayer for my students. Beyond teaching them, helping them learn, and, hopefully make progress, I can’t ensure greater success than that. There is so much beyond the control of the teacher. And, In concur with Joanne’s remarks.

  3. Jackie says:

    Joanne & missprofe,

    Thanks for the feedback and the reminders. It is greatly appreciated.

  4. Jen says:

    From being a paraprofessional, I knew before I started teaching the LA public schools that the majority of my students, statistically, will not be fine (in the ways teachers worry about). Having a few years to get used to the things that worry you can help. It doesn’t eliminate the worry but it puts it in a realistic place. Teachers are important, but no one teacher is as important as we can make ourselves when we’re stressing about our choices/ability/whatever.

    Of course, I sometimes fret too much anyway. When I am thinking about a particular student too much, I try to remind myself that the student is most likely NOT thinking about me at that moment, and that helps me put it away for a while.

    I expect this issue, like 192 others, will be better next year.

  5. Jackie says:


    I think this is part of my “problem”. In my ten years as a special ed aide, I was always focused on the kids who were having problems and trying to figure out how to help them (and help them help themselves). It’s been difficult for me to change the focus to everyone. Equally.

    Does this mean that all 192 issues will be better next year? Wow. I can’t wait until next year. šŸ™‚

  6. Kevin Walter says:

    How you define success is relative to how you define your objective. If you set out with a goal to help everyone, you’re not being realistic. Focus on the students that you can help. Teenagers are notorious for walling themselves off from outside help, especially from adults, and these walls can only be broken down from the inside. Students who are absolutely unwilling to be helped are not a failure story for you as a teacher.

    I once had a teacher who told us at the beginning of the semester, “I’ve never failed anyone. I’ve never passed anyone, either. The students did it themselves.” Attempting to reach every student is setting yourself up for failure.

  7. Jackie says:

    Very true Kevin – but how does one know which students he or she will reach?

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