Rethinking Student Accomplishment: What Does It Mean To Be Successful?

The ultimate goal in life is to be successful. As a teacher, I hope that all my students are successful and that I can play a role in helping them reach that success. But, what does it mean to be successful? 

Many people have different outlooks of what it means to be successful or what success looks like. The dictionary definition of success is the accomplishment of an aim or purpose. This leaves a lot open to interpretation. However, in education we often have models of what a successful student, teacher, classroom, or school looks like. In the bigger picture, successful schools are often judged by their test scores, graduation rates, and college admittance rates. Stripping away from the individuals who make up that school community, their success is determined by data and numbers. Even if the school is reaching the benchmark “successful” data points, have all of the students reached success?

For my charter network, student success looks like getting to and through college. This means that students graduate with their California A through G requirements, enroll in a college or university, and graduate with their bachelor’s degree in less than six years. Our mission is that schools will demonstrate student academic achievement growth and graduate students ready for success in college. That sounds really nice on paper, but what does that look like in practice? From my experience, this looks like longer school days, rigorous class schedules, SAT preparation programs, college field trips, and college application “bootcamps”. For many students, this is a path they can be successful on. But is there only one path to success?

I would challenge that college is not always the path to success for all students. But, attending a high school that focuses on college readiness, challenges you with rigorous classes, prepares you for the SAT, and has you apply to colleges all provides students options for their futures. Even though all students have different future paths, it is important that the opportunities are there for them to choose from. As we outline these paths, we both explicitly and implicitly identify what it means to be successful. Our “successful” students graduate with a California A through G diploma and continue on to graduate with their bachelor’s degree from a college or university.

But, can we funnel all students through only one path to “success”? Students who don’t identify with that one college path have little to no opportunities to experience “success” while enrolled in school. It is so important that we provide all students with the opportunity to experience success. In the classroom that could look like improving test scores, understanding content knowledge an skills, or conducting an outstanding group project or presentation. It could also be success in social and life skills like working well with others, improving classroom behavior, learning to understand and reflect on emotions and behaviors, taking a leadership role, or being kind and accepting to others. There are so many opportunities to call out and celebrate the little successes that students experience on a daily basis. Celebrating these daily small successes will help to build confidence and motivation to reach larger goals.

As a school and a larger school network, can we provide more opportunities and paths for student success? Can we show that students can be successful by taking many alternative paths? It is often that the path we deem “successful” is graduating with a California A through G diploma and continuing on to graduate with their bachelor’s degree from a college or university. Students can also be successful by going to trade school, becoming an apprentice, joining the military, or attending community college. All of these paths provide opportunities for success. 

What I hope for my students is that they are all successful and find what success means to them. In my classroom, I hope to provide opportunities for my students to be challenged and to experience some level of success. Success is accomplishing one’s purpose and in order to be successful, you first need to find your purpose. 

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Chelsea Culbert

Chelsea Culbert

Chelsea Culbert is a proud product of New York public schools where she graduated with her International Baccalaureate diploma. She went off to attain her B.A. in Chemistry with concentrations in Public Health and Child and Adolescent Mental Health Studies at NYU. While at NYU, she started the chapter of “Strive for College,” a non-profit organization that connects college students as mentors to assist high schoolers throughout the college application and financial aid processes. Immediately after graduation, Chelsea pursued her teaching career with Teach for America Los Angeles. While teaching, Chelsea completed her Master’s degree in Urban Education at Loyola Marymount University. Chelsea is currently teaching at her Teach for America placement school in Lincoln Heights where she serves as Department Instructional Lead, Instructional Leadership Team member, and coaches Varsity soccer.

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