What Educational Excellence Looks Like

I understood that there were significant differences between the mediocre student and the excellent one and I determined to always be the latter.
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Over two decades ago, when I entered college at the University of Kentucky as a bright-eyed 18 year old, I was a mediocre student. Talented, but mediocre. Brilliant even, but ordinary. Nothing special on paper. Certainly not excellent. I knew how to get by. I also believed that because I was doing better than most people I knew (I mean, I did get a partial scholarship) that somehow that meant I was doing great.
 
That couldn’t have been further from the truth.
 
Now nearly 40 years old, three degrees and plenty of good stuff on paper later, I still wonder what I would have been able to accomplish had I did my best from the very beginning. I wonder about the time I lost trying to be like so-and-so and doing such-and-such because so-and-so did it. What would have happened had I not believed the lie that somehow being mediocre was cool simply because my mediocre was someone else’s best? It wasn’t until a Communications professor outed me in my junior year that I even clearly understood that this was what I was doing. He said, “As long as you continue to function in a way that is slightly less than your capacity, you will always only get slightly less than what you want out of life.” I’m so grateful to him because everything changed for me after that.
 
I finally got it.
 
From then on, I understood that there were significant differences between the mediocre student and the excellent one and I determined to always be the latter. Today, as a professor, I encourage my students to embrace these concepts if they haven’t already. And most importantly for me, as I listen to my little girl “read” her books and recite her ABCs, I’m reminded that these are lessons I must also instill in her early and often.
 
And before folks start throwing cyber tomatoes and calling me a “Tiger Mom,” please note that I’m not defining excellence as perfection. To me—and what I think my professor was trying to get at—excellence is the application of one’s very best effort. Period.
 
But that application has some very specific actions associated with it. Here are a few:
 
Excellent students read. They read to understand. They read to grasp both concrete and abstract concepts. They read more than what the teacher assigns. If a book or article or essay comes up in a discussion, they check it out without being prompted. They make reading a lifelong habit—better yet, love. Mediocre students, if they read at all, read for a singular answer not to comprehend a concept. They only read what’s assigned as opposed to what is suggested.
 
Excellent Students show up. Even when they don’t feel like it. Even when life gets in the way. They understand the connection between their presence (physical and mental) and their ability to understand and learn. Mediocre students are governed by their feelings. If they feel like showing up, if they feel staying up and doing extra research, they will. But as soon as they don’t feel like it…and Murphy’s Law says this will happen most of the time…they won’t.
 
Excellent students ask questions and take notes. They are not swayed by how they might be perceived by doing so. And they don’t do it to win points with other students or their teachers. They do it because they genuinely want to understand what’s being taught. They constantly revisit the syllabus or the assignment directions to make sure that they are on task. Mediocre students don’t ask questions and only take notes if mandated. They aren’t sure when assignments are due and usually wait to the last minute to gain clarity on directions.
 
Excellent students care about their progress and the progress of their fellow students. They revise their work whether asked to do so or not. They take advantage of resources that will help them improve. And even when they’ve nailed a concept, or believe they have mastered a subject, they always come to class with the expectation that they might learn something new. And if they don’t learn something new, they make sure they at least, humbly share their knowledge with students who may not be as far ahead. Mediocre students don’t bother. As I said, as long as they get by, they’re good. They are not willing to add anything substantive to the class discussion or they sit arrogantly in class thinking about how far along they think they are—even when they usually aren’t very far along at all.
 
Believe it or not, there is an extremely fine line between a mediocre student and an excellent student. Every child—from kindergarten to college—has the ability to cross over from being average to outstanding; to go from good to great as Jim Collins wrote in a different context. But just like my younger self, once a student begins to reap the real rewards of being excellent—rewards that extend well beyond getting good grades and include becoming a person of good character—it will take quite a bit of slacking to intentionally return to mediocrity.
 
Parents, what are you doing to ensure your child pursues excellence as opposed to mediocrity in their education?
 
Reprinted with permission from My Brown Baby.
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