For Students, No Success Goes Unpunished

Jose VilsonResources5 Comments

Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde

It started from the first time teachers found out I could read above grade level. The kindergarten teacher, Ms. Greene, calls on some of her colleague to watch me read a book, where they marveled that I already knew how to enunciate words a few grades above grade level. My first grade teacher, Mrs. Klein, already heard about the wunderkind going to her class after an accidental switch to a bilingual class. She pulls me and another young girl to the side and said, “Listen, I’d love to put you on a different track than everyone else in this class,” a room full of kids who I assumed had the same intellectual capacity that I had. “All you have to do is a few more pages of this book than everyone else and …”

My mind drifted. I already didn’t want to do it. I completed the first and second nights of the assignment, but soon drifted towards doing exactly as much as everyone else. She was not impressed. “I’m sorry, Jose, but if you really wanted to excel, you could have done this. Now, you can join everyone else.”

Regret set in. For about a 30 minutes. After seeing the laughter and calm from the rest of the class, I told myself, “Getting off that track was awesome!”

People have heard “no good deed goes unpunished.” In many schools, no good success goes unpunished as well. Students with lower academic achievement have gotten most of our attentions, and mostly with good intentions. But, unbeknownst to the unobservant, the smart, successful kid needs support and attention, too.

Never mind for a second that, in any classroom, the teacher tends to give more attention to the misbehaved children, thus teaching the on-task students that, in order to get attention, they need to misbehave. The high achievers I know of refer to an intense amount of pressure to keep their grades as high as they are. Even when the teacher(s) of the child don’t see it, the child often feels like, because they’re so smart and so talented, that they don’t want to disappoint anyone by not knowing something or often get picked on when they finally do make a mistake.

For example, in the eighth grade, the GPA peak of my academic career, if I didn’t get a close-to-perfect score on a quiz, my fellow students would make fun of me for not doing well on that test, saying things like, “Aren’t you in an honors class?” or “Aren’t you trying out for [insert prestigious school here]?” I wanted to jam the quiz so far down the person’s mouth, but a) it was unbecoming of a young Catholic goody-two-shoes and b) telling them that my average is still 10-15 points higher than theirs would only exacerbate the situation.

High achievers, especially in a K-12 setting, sometimes care more about fitting in than they do standing out.

They’ve barely figured themselves out, and doing well in school puts them in a bind with their peers, who are often uncomfortable with how they’re doing in class or simply need to nitpick. Some of the most intelligent kids I know prefer that no one else knows they’re intelligent, or hide behind a mask that allows them to be part of the “cool kids.” For those that don’t have a mask, however, these years are tough.

This is just food for thought. Do you address this in class? If so, how? How does your classroom allow for everyone to take part without feeling like they only matter if they’re on either end of the academic achievement spectrum?

Mr. Vilson, who turned out alright after all …

Comments 5

  1. When I was in kindergarten, my older brothers and sisters had already taught me to read. Since the other kids (mostly) were not reading, the teacher decided to challenge Erica, Sara and me (I still remember the other two little girls who could read, though I haven’t seen them since) with incredibly boring reading exercises which we did while kept inside from recess. I guess she figured that way she’d challenge us without having us miss the things she was doing with the other kids. I, predictably, did not want to be kept in from recess and promptly learned that if I got into trouble, they’d let me go outside instead.

  2. If kids were permitted to figure out their interets, their strengths, their weaknesses and devote themselves to mastering what THEY felt was important in the absence of tests and exams and evaluations (by others), you’d see them succeed far beyond societal expectations. That’s what is done at Sudbury Valley School ( No fixed curriculum; no tests; no exams; no evaluations; no “teachers.” Staff members are there to keep the school together and serve the students as they require. You want a high school diploma? Then convince a committee of strangers (adults) that you have used your childhood to prepare yourself for the adult world. Forty five years of experience demonstrates that it works.

  3. Pingback: Remainders: Feminism for school, taught by one of its leaders | GothamSchools

  4. I went to a workshop on differentiation (I think it was with Carol Ann Tomlinson) that mentioned the need for “respectful tasks,” which I think is relevant here. Just as the high performers shouldn’t have exclusive access to the fun, creative assignments while low performers get worksheets, neither should high performers simply be required to do more of the same work while lower performers get to do less. Neither of these situations represents respectful differentiation. One type of class that I’ve done in an attempt to differentiate while still providing equity in the nature of the work is as follows: All students participate in two stations/activities. The weaker readers and those newer to the content begin by watching an engaging video that introduces core concepts. They then do a reading assignment that reinforces those same concepts. Stronger readers and those with more content background begin with the same reading assignment that the weaker readers started with, but move on to an engaging video that reinforces but goes beyond the core concepts, providing enrichment. Both groups get access to the core content, both get both reading and video assignments, but these are presented in such a way as to meet each individual’s needs at that moment.

  5. I’m stuck on the first two paragraphs. Knowing your ability…your teacher did not insist you finish the assignment and put you in the ‘high track’? Did your parents know about this? Just curious….

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