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“Overachievers” and the Tyranny of Low Expectations

By Dave Stuart Jr.

The other day when my students were brainstorming questions they could ask to a panel of local professionals, a student said she would like to ask, “What motivated you to overachieve and become successful?” This was an earnest question from a pretty transparent kid.

The definition of an overachiever, in my general education classes especially, is someone who simply does the work of a student: completing homework, being organized, asking questions in class, studying before tests [1]. For my students, saying, “No, I can’t play Xbox Live tonight because we have a test tomorrow and I’m studying,” or, “I didn’t respond to your texts last night because I turn my phone off at 8 every night so I can focus on schoolwork,” is bound to draw ridicule from the average friend. Many adults reinforce this when their chief expectations for teenagers are that they DON’T: don’t fail classes, don’t cyberbully or sext, don’t do drugs. Avoid self-destruction, and you’re great. Everything above that, like making your bed and stuff, is overachieving.

So of course, here we have a clear obstacle to the motivation of our kids, and it’s one that can’t be overcome just by helping students feel that they belong to our class community. Belonging alone doesn’t do much unless we can answer a second question — belonging to what? And the answer has to be to a countercultural community, a group of people for whom personal achievement is normal and worthy.

The first step to doing this is to let our kids see the absurdity of the culture’s definition of overachievement. Overachievers definitionally do MORE than achievement (the realization of our potential) requires.

  • What is the best I am capable of in this class?
  • What is the most I am capable of growing, learning, becoming this semester in here?

The achiever is the one who asks these questions — not the overachiever. Achievers are en route to flourishing lives. Achievers are what I want my children to be, both the little ones in my home and the teenagers I teach. I want my kids to be people who push themselves, who make time six days a week for studying (even in hard home life situations), who refuse to believe that they can’t succeed in math or history or literature or physical education — not because I want my kids to be The Best or to Compete in the Real World, but because I believe in the realization of human potential.

The second step, then — once we’ve helped our students see the absurdity of the dominant culture’s definition of “overachievement” — is to create classroom cultures where achievers are the norm. Achievement is what we do here. I put this in class mantras (e.g., do hard things), I do this by requiring certain things in student writing (this warm-up must be 100 words; this essay must have all its uses of evidence cited and explained), and I do this by repeatedly trying to paint a picture of how our classroom doesn’t match the dominant culture. We are about more than fame or popularity or appearances or bare minimums because we see this for what it is — not just demotivating, but insulting.

Footnote:

  1. On the Consortium Framework, these are Academic Behaviors.

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2 Responses to “Overachievers” and the Tyranny of Low Expectations

  1. John Tanner November 16, 2016 at 3:04 pm #

    Excellent and thought-provoking post. I love this idea of being countercultural by making achievement the norm and not the exception—of making belief and effort and challenge just the normal way of doing business. I also love knowing that there are other educators out there sending the message that high expectations (combined with appropriate support) communicate compassion and a belief in the worth and dignity of our students. Thanks, Dave, for continuing to sharpen and inspire us.

  2. davestuartjr November 17, 2016 at 11:14 am #

    John, thank you so much. Yes, we like-minded folks have to spur one another on if we are going to have an impact on the culture. Cheers to you, John.

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