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October 1, 2008
Vol. 66
No. 2

The Principal Connection / What Does Successful Mean?

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Are there differences between success in school and success in life?
I've recently posed that question to a range of people. Indeed, it's one of the essay questions on the teacher application at the New City School. Take a moment and think about your own response.
You see, that's an easy question, and it's not. I found a strong consensus among people that there are differences between success in school and success in life. But I found an even stronger consensus that success in school is just a beginning.
People understand that the factors leading to success in school are important. Although we're all grateful for spell-check programs and calculators, students do need to learn how to read, write, and calculate. Being a math whiz or an amazing poet opens up career pathways and job opportunities. Conversely, having poor linguistic or math skills closes doors.
But person after person I spoke with said that doing well in school is not enough. Workers in many different professions—architects, bankers, coaches, stay-at-home parents—asserted that success in life depends on having a high “emotional intelligence quotient,” also called EQ, meaning strong knowledge of oneself and the ability to work effectively with others. Personal courage, a strong work ethic, and an upbeat attitude also topped the list.
  • The capacity to face the unknown with confidence.
  • All the little things a person does every day that provide personal growth and satisfaction and give others joy.
  • The courage to go against the norm.
  • Being satisfied with who you are and what you have done in life.
  • A connection to something larger than yourself.
  • A life free from poverty and debt.
One person reflected that “a person is never successful, but is always in the process of becoming successful.” Quite a few said that schools focus too much on grades and offer too few ways for students to shine. Another common theme was that schools should guide students in learning to be self-reflective and to define success for themselves.

Missed Opportunities

Schools are missing opportunities to nurture the attributes that are essential to a satisfying life. A principal from Colorado once told me that her district had just concluded a two-day administrative retreat focused on improving student outcomes. “But no one ever talked about what happens after students turn 18!” she said, clearly disturbed. I hear this kind of remark often as I talk with educators. Too often, school leaders envision no goals for students beyond high school graduation.
To be fair, teachers and principals naturally focus on teaching skills and attributes that they can readily measure. The current ritualized focus on test scores only exacerbates that tendency. No one asks whether a school makes adequate yearly progress in increasing students' proficiency at caring for others or giving a project their all. Multiple-choice tests can't measure such components of success as caring, tenacity, integrity, and creativity. But if school leaders ignore qualities that we know are necessary for success, how can we prepare students for the future?
When we talk about excellence in education, we must remember that our job is to prepare students for an excellent life, not just an excellent upcoming school year. Switching our focus in this way has big implications.
Principals need to initiate dialogue about what's most important to pass on to students. Granted, students need to perform well on standardized tests, but let's not stop there. Let's provide teachers many opportunities—and at times a push—to discuss what qualities students will need to succeed throughout life. Let's look at how we can teach in ways that foster those skills—how we can teach for the whole child. Situations like the retreat the Colorado principal described are a perfect venue.
Schools should develop concrete plans to foster the personal characteristics that school staff members believe students need to succeed in life. If we want to develop students who demonstrate compassion, for example, our formal curriculum should include the teaching of compassion. We should model compassion and let students know that we value it. The school might applaud students who exhibit deep caring by pointing out through school assemblies and on bulletin boards concrete examples of care that teachers have witnessed. We might discuss at faculty meetings and parent nights how to foster students' compassion. When we limit our assessment of a student's character to “Displays good conduct,” we have failed that student.
As we talk about excellent education, I believe we must focus on success in life as explicitly as on academic success. I'd like to hear your opinion. How would you define success in school and success in life? What should educators do to help students achieve both? Please send me your response.

Thomas R. Hoerr retired after leading the New City School in St. Louis, Missouri, for 34 years and is now the Emeritus Head of School. He teaches in the educational leadership program at the University of Missouri–St. Louis and holds a PhD from Washington University in St. Louis.

Hoerr has written six other books—Becoming a Multiple Intelligences School, The Art of School Leadership, School Leadership for the Future, Fostering Grit, The Formative Five, Taking Social-Emotional Learning Schoolwide—and more than 160 articles, including "The Principal Connection" column in Educational Leadership.

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