When I was an undergraduate student at CU, I was fortunate to be part of the President’s Leadership Class. This was a four year program that we described as having three parts; it was a series of classes, a scholarship, and a community. Through the classwork and other associated requirements, we earned a certificate in leadership and invaluable relationship with our peers.
In the first two and a half years of my undergraduate career, I had an intense and somewhat rocky relationship with the program. I was surrounded by incredibly brilliant and talented people, and I wasn’t sure how I fit in or how to stand out. I felt crippled by the incredibly high expectations the program placed on me, and overwhelmed by the workload and the successes of the people around me.
During my spring semester of my junior year, I studied abroad in Sweden and for six months, I hardly talked to anyone in the US except for my immediate family. I took several classes, but mostly I wandered a lot up and down the Fyris river and spent a lot of time thinking. That separation was crucial in many ways.
At the end of that time, I returned to PLC and was a TA for the first year classes. This was, by far, my favorite year of my undergraduate career. I aced biochemistry (along with the rest of my classes), kept school in perspective, and had a wonderful time living at Holly House with my friends. I am immensely proud of the work I did with the first year team and what I learned in my final year as a PLCer.
Interesting story, you say. But why am I revisiting it tonight?
I just finished an interview with a first-year PLC student who is creating a yearbook of past and present PLCers. Since my mom was also in PLC, the program director wanted to feature the two of us as a generational story. And in that interview, Jenna asked me a really excellent question. She asked me, “How do you define success?”
I had to think for a moment before I answered that one, and in some ways I’m not sure I answered her at all. But the very short version of what I told her was that I had to define success for myself, rather than defining it by others’ expectations of me.
The long version included telling her the story that I just told you, about my overwhelmed-ness with trying to live up to being in PLC and a Boettcher scholar, taking space, and coming back with an entirely new attitude. When I came back to Boulder that year, I decided I was going to Take Back Boulder. (Really, it had nothing to do with Boulder; it had to do with classes and school and my priorities. But Boulder sounds better.) I set stringent boundaries for PLC; I didn’t live with other PLCers and I was extremely cautious about letting PLC in my house. I didn’t talk about it, work on it, or have PLCers over except in very non-PLC settings. I defined my own goals for biochemistry and my other classes. I had goals outside of school for my social life and health that I prioritized over homework, sometimes. And, with the support of the people of Holly House, I met all of my goals.
In doing this, I also met a lot of the other expectations of success for other people. Aced classes, good projects, family dinner for Holly people once a week: these things all happened. But they didn’t happen because other people expected them. They happened because I decided I wanted them to.
Defining success is about defining expectations. When I answered Jenna, I didn’t tell her how I defined success. In some ways, that’s very dependent on the situation. And sometimes it’s really important to consider other people’s expectations. But I did tell her that it was super important for me to define success, rather than letting other people do it for me.
Hooray! Success story! I learned a cool thing and now my life is awesome!
As I was telling all of this to Jenna, I realized that I had completely forgotten this lesson when I became a teacher. There are a lot of perceptions of teachers, ranging from incompetents in a failing system to saviors of American culture. With all of this comes a lot of expectations about pulling long hours at school, doing lots of grading, what lessons should look like, how students should behave and how much they should learn…the list of expectations is endless. And it’s literally impossible to meet them all; but despite that, I try. And I burn out, and I get exhausted, and I keep trying, and it’s really quite terrible for me.
So. I have some major homework and thinking to do, courtesy once again of PLC. How do I regain control of how define success as a teacher? How do I lay aside everyone else’s expectations and live up only to my own? How do I use my expectations to set boundaries so I can be an excellent teacher in the classroom and also a real human when I get home?
Good questions. But the good thing is that I know I figured it once. It was in a different setting at a different time in my life, but I think I can figure it out again.
Your homework is the same homework Jenna gave me. How do you define success?