The ‘secret’ of student success – work

Published 12:00 am Monday, April 2, 2001

Most colleges operate offices called "student success" or "student retention," and they do well to offer these services.

Monday, April 02, 2001

Most colleges operate offices called "student success" or "student retention," and they do well to offer these services. Yet, my experience as a teacher (kindergarten through graduate school), a school administrator and a father of three (now adults, two of whom are teachers) tells me the crucial ingredient of student success is hard work. Not mental brilliance, not academic skill – but hard work.

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God made French Poodles to be cute, which is what some students seem to think God has made them. Some dogs, such as German shepherds, are by their nature more intelligent than other breeds, and a few students so fancy themselves and expect automatic grades worthy of them. Golden retrievers are known for their sociability, and every school has its pack of party animals. God made bulldogs, however, so that when they decide to bite down on an object, they will not let go until they decide to do so. I look for bulldogs in my classes.

Occasionally I have been confronted by students who exaggerate their ability, and these typically stumble or even fail consequent to being overly impressed with their own native ability. They think they don’t need to work hard and hardly work. Or, they presume their academic history is entitlement. "How can you give me a C? I always get As."

Usually, however, I recognized more potential than they do in themselves. I respect students more highly and have more confidence in them. They become aware of things of which they had never heard and, so, presume they cannot accomplish them. When they never work at it, they have no idea of what they could do if they would but try.

I am neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet, but I am experienced and I have learned by watching students for approaching 50 years. I have seen students who were certain they lacked necessary intelligence or skill truly try and actually achieve. I refuse to allow them to put themselves down and demand from them more than they know is within themselves.

I believe in them, and they come to believe in themselves. That’s how it was with me. In eighth grade. Her name was Miss Ella Hoffman.

An initial reaction to using my own published writing as examples is someone objecting: "Of course you write good. You’re a published writer and editor!" I come back at them: And just what do you suppose I have had to do to write well? I work hard at writing, and I expect credit for my hard work.

Being assigned to a class with an indifferent teacher is no excuse for a student not learning. I have endured that situation more than what would seem to be my share. Eventually, I learned to walk into the class determined to learn whether the teacher teaches or does not. I will learn because of the teacher if I can, but I will learn despite the teacher if I must.

Moreover, teachers appear to be indifferent more frequently than they actually are. When teachers become indifferent it is usually because they have suffered too long at the hands of indifferent students. Nothing will knock the indifferentness out of a teacher more surely than to experience students who actually want to learn. You can transform your teachers by your attitude and eagerness to learn.

More than a few students are stupid and cut their noses off despite their faces. They think class attendance is not important just because the teacher doesn’t always grab their interest, when nothing outside the classroom is ever going to do it. Some will attend classes and then not show up for the final exam or leave a question entirely blank without even trying. Perhaps I am revealing a trade secret, but let me tell you: Most teachers will award a disproportionate amount of credit to a student just for trying.

Student success is more dependent upon attitude than aptitude, industry than intelligence. Working hard at study does not necessarily mean physical sweat and emotional stress. It means conscious commitment to learn and bulldoggedly staying on task.

Wallace Alcorn’s column appears Mondays.