The Upper School celebrated its annual Academic Honors Assembly on January 28th, celebrating an impressive list of Honor and High Honor Roll recipients. W. Ansel Sanders, Ed.L.D., President & CEO of Public Education Partners spoke to the students, delivering a timeless message. Below are his prepared remarks.
“Good morning, everyone. I am honored to be with you here at this Academic Honors Assembly. Thank you for the invitation to celebrate with you and share a few of my reflections with these outstanding students, their parents, and faculty. And as an educator myself; father of a primer and 1st grade student; uncle to a primer, 3rd grader, and 4th grader here at Christ Church; husband to a Christ Church alumni; brother-in-law to your current board chair; and overall massive cheerleader for the role a great school can mean to the trajectory, growth, and development of a young person, such an opportunity is really exciting, humbling, and deeply personal.
"Dr. Kupersmith, I’m particularly humbled by your asking me to speak. In one of your letters to the community, you write ‘CCES has achieved consistent results for fifty-eight years for the entire student body. It provides a lasting legacy to each student by satisfying the aim of a school: to educate minds and cultivate character.’ This school has been able to have such an impact on all its young people, establish a lasting legacy to each student, and ensure the school educates minds and cultivates character because its leader lives out such principled beliefs each day in a thoughtful, personal, meticulous, and inclusive manner. Although your retirement is over a year away, I also want to take this opportunity to thank you for your leadership, perspective and friendship.
"To the nearly 200 students assembled here today, you have demonstrated a high bar of achievement and this well-deserved, well-earned recognition should be celebrated, and we should also celebrate your teachers, parents, and this great school that supported you on your path to this recognition. Congratulations!
"And along with congratulating you, I’d like to also offer an additional dimension to our thinking about achievement and success. Now, pushing a conversation is a lesson in leadership I first began to really understand and practice during my time in high school due to my teachers and coaches, but imparted particularly poetically and assertively by an English teacher and track coach of mine named Mr. Hale, who hailed originally from a small town in Tennessee and had the accent and drawl to prove it. ‘Hale,’ as we used to call him, had ‘Hale-isms’… phrases he would frequently say and reference both in and out the classroom to the extent that many of them became embedded in your muscle memory…and you often found yourself reciting them to others. Here is one of my favorites: ‘It does no good to bring a group of people together to simply bless the status quo!’
"Therefore, this morning, I will attempt follow this Hale-ism and rightfully offer my sincere congratulations to all the students recognized today for your success, but not end there, as to do so misses an opportunity for us, as a group assembled together this morning, to challenge and deepen our thinking about how to take such success to the next level, and how you can leverage the tremendous, unique experience you have while here at Christ Church Episcopal School to practice taking success to the next level.
"To take success to the next level, we must actually think about and attempt to realize the opportunity inherent in the opposite of success, which is failure…mistakes. Let’s explore this concept a bit more.
"It is failure and struggle that, when reciprocated with supportive and nurturing adults and environments, converts into to resilience, confidence, grit and hope…which in turn leads not only to success, which I’d argue is fleeting and temporary, but to significance and happiness, a zone in which you can then positively impact whoever and whatever comes across your path. The world becomes a better place when you leverage and lean into failure as a growth opportunity. Mistakes are the key ingredient to achieving beyond success to significance and should be baked into the fabric of a student’s educational experience and pursuits.
"But it is actually not the norm for schools, or the expectations that we as adults or the institutions and norms we represent espouse, or perhaps the expectations students have for themselves. Culture and expectations, especially in schools, are often especially framed around avoiding mistakes.
"The culture of a classroom and school is developed slowly and over time. The teacher’s responses to mistakes contribute to this culture; students are aware of, and subsequently calibrate their behavior and mindsets around, what is tolerated and what is unacceptable. In many schools, you’re supposed to know the right answer. Success is defined as getting great results (meaning minimal mistakes) and high grades often matter more than the process of learning or the process of getting to an answer. Beyond the classroom, success is also commonly defined as the prestige of the college you’re admitted to, how much money you make, and the zip code you live in.
"And in the classroom, what happens when the results aren’t good? A student feels embarrassed or shamed, perhaps eventually resulting in a self-belief that I’m dumb, lazy, or dimwitted…and that the way to succeed in life is to never make mistakes. Indeed, and ironically, we learn a lot of these bad lessons really well in school.
"In some ways, these really bad lessons are working against what’s actually happening in the brain when we learn and make mistakes. Studies show that adding challenging things to learning can actually improve your ability to remember what you’ve learned long term. Applied to the classroom, when a teacher tries to make learning as easy as possible, students might remember the material for a quiz the next day – but long term, they won’t remember it as well.
"How your brain reacts, though, depends in part on how you view mistakes. The brain produces feedback signals when we are learning, sending different signals when something is correct or not correct. University of Michigan’s Jason Moser found that people who think they can learn from their mistakes – what Stanford’s Carol Dweck coined a ‘growth mindset’ – did better after making a mistake compared to those with ‘fixed mindsets’ who believe your abilities are pre-set so you can’t learn from your mistakes. Moser’s findings suggest that the brain of a can-learn person ends up responding faster to fixing a mistake, while negative attitudes about mistakes can translate into a slower response and more mistakes.
"And as recent research shows, the negative impact of fixed mindsets is pervasive across our country: A sampling of 900,000 adolescent students who responded to a recent student engagement Gallup survey found that only half of adolescent students report feeling engaged in school, and a fifth are actively disengaged, bottoming out at 11th grade, primarily because students feel less cared for by adults and see less value in their own work.
"The need and opportunity to translate such research to practice is clear for students, teachers, and schools. For one, teachers and schools need to create safe spaces so that students feel comfortable doing things like sharing a best guess and taking risks. I’ve seen this done in classrooms where teachers take the most common mistakes that the class made on a test or quiz and the class analyze them together. The more open everyone is about mistakes they’ve made and how they happened, the less emotional significance any student will place on future errors. Mr. Hale did this often in my high school English classes; we analyzed various anonymous sections and passages from our essays and, as a class, critiqued and provided feedback. My hunch is many of your teachers lead similar strategies in your classes.
"Another strategy is for schools to engage students about why struggling is an important part of learning. Harvard Graduate School of Education lecturer David Dockterman notes, ‘Actually teach them about Dweck’s growth mindset theory, that your brain is a muscle and it really is no pain, no gain. If you’re not going to use it, it’s not going to grow. So exercise it. Look for challenges. Expect struggle because that’s a signal that you’re learning. It’s hard, but that means something good is happening.’
"So mistakes need to be seen not as impenetrable roadblocks, but rather as natural parts of the learning process. It’s like babies learning to walk. You step, you fall; you wobble, you fall. And it doesn’t matter whether it’s a baby learning to walk, or revising an English paper, rehearsing for a play or working with Coach Cummings on your technique to make that save as a lacrosse goalie (as I, as a former lacrosse goalie in college, attempted and failed to do many, many times…sports and extracurriculars, by the way, are another way to learn through mistakes). In essence, it is the right-sized challenge that promotes our greatest learning.
"The opportunity lies in failure, and to be surrounded by a school that aligns its culture and practice with this, as Christ Church does, is massively unique and a tremendous growth opportunity that I encourage you to utilize and explore.
"The benefits of this theory of learning isn’t just rhetoric. We know it is crucial to your future. A recent Gallup poll measuring student engagement found that ‘hope,’ a word synonymous with engagement, resilience, grit, or what Christ Church’s strategic plan under goal #2 refers to as the ‘Cavalier Mindset,’ is more crucial to success in college and beyond than GPA, ACT or SAT scores!
"Further, when it comes to being engaged at work and thriving in your well-being after college, Gallup research shows that what you studied and where you went to college hardly matter; what matters is how you did college— having a meaningful internship or job, working on a long-term project, being actively involved in extracurricular activities, and embedding yourself in a network of emotional support from others.
"This theory of learning is especially critical for what we know young people need in their development and maturation. Learning to be vulnerable, understanding the value and growth from making mistakes, reflecting on your practice in the name of continuous improvement, and being surrounded by a support system pushing you, loving you, and saying it is OK to struggle is the type of environment suitable for the appropriate holistic development of young women and men.
"So my remarks today is both a congratulations to academic honorees, and it is also a call to action for you and your peers to take the next step, to move from success to significance by actively leveraging the amazing opportunities Christ Church Episcopal school offers and should intentionally offer you, to push yourself to the edge of your abilities and, through struggle and mistakes, learn more about yourself, infusing your head, heart, and hands with the aptitudes of hope and self-confidence that will ensure your significance in a world that is ever-changing, wonderfully complex, messy, and is yearning for significant leadership.
"Thank you and congratulations.”Click Here for a list of Middle School High Honor Roll and Honor Roll recipients for the 1st semester of the 2018-2019 school year. Click Here for a list of Upper School High Honor Roll and Honor Roll recipients for the 1st semester of the 2018-2019 school year.