Detoxifying the Culture of Overachievement in Education by guest Edcouragementor Michael Wilt

Problem:  The culture of overachievement can be toxic

The culture of overachievement is seemingly founded upon a positive attribute: higher expectations.  Specifically in education, however, this foundation has developed many toxic traits that often reduce the learning experience into an entirely transactional process. Students perform educational tasks and receive payment in the form of letter grades.  Their achievements in education are then measured entirely in a number — the grade point average.  The higher the Grade Point Average (GPA), the more the student has achieved.  

As educators, we know that learning is more than just a number.  GPA can be an indicator of how well a student has mastered content.  It does, however, fail to give a very well-rounded picture of the many other dimensions of a student’s performance in the classroom.  The toxicity arises in school cultures when stakeholders focus primarily on making their students’ numbers better than others.

In a culture of toxic overachievement, grades become the most important–if not only – indicator of success.   In education, we reinforce the value that we place upon high GPAs  with accolades and honors we bestow upon students–honor rolls, enrollment in honors level courses and Advanced Placement classes, as well as valedictorian distinction, etc.  These accolades and honors provide all stakeholders with status–students, parents, and schools.  

For toxic overachieving students, status drives many academic behaviors – constantly seeking grade adjustments, enrolling in a course just to be with friends, pursuing achievement in areas outside of their areas of interest, etc.  Students in a culture of toxic overachievement have learned to seek knowledge as a means of personal and social capital.  Oftentimes, they tie their self-esteem to their grades.  Some may fear parents withholding love from them for not achieving certain grades (and, unfortunately, sometimes there is truth to this fear).  Others have a fear of being academically left behind by their friends or unable to achieve their academic goals, because they are not enrolled in a certain course or program.   Any of the given statuses would motivate a student to be a toxic overachiever.  

Status drives many toxic overachieving parent and educator behaviors as well.  Faculty and parents want the status of talking about how high students’ grades are.  College counsellors want to talk about how many particular universities and colleges admitted their students.  Principals want to quote statistics about how many of their valedictorians have gone to a particular Ivy League school.  Parents want to brag about how many Honors or Advanced Placement courses their student is enrolled in.  Parents want to compare the number of after school commitments their students have, the number of sports they play, or the number of awards they have won.  Any of these examples would incur a certain amount of status upon any stakeholder in the school.  In a toxic culture of overachievement, accumulating more and more remarkability would subsequently incur exponential amounts of status—in essence, compounded status.  Since gaining status is a primary motivator for toxic overachievement, the culture seeks ways of incurring status upon status to bolster status by association for all stakeholders.  Parents and teachers thus enjoy the rosy halo effect of having a high achiever within a pool of high achievers.

As such, toxicity can be pervasive in a school culture where overachievement is the norm.  Recognizing it can be easy, but detoxifying might not be as easy.  Oftentimes, denial is comorbid with toxic overachievement.  Toxic overachievers often lack the awareness that they are indeed toxic overachievers.  To detoxify overachievement in a school’s culture, one must first recognize its existence.  Once it is recognized, then, and only then, can it be flushed out.  To do so, recognizing the solution is simple.  The implementation, however, is the tricky part. 

Solution:  Develop the joy of learning.  

Beautiful oopsies.  Growth mindset.  Whatever you want to call it, the joy of learning comes from accepting the fact that eventually we all make errors in the process and we are all on our own personal journeys of development in that process.  Toxic overachievement treats failure as the enemy.  As educators seeking to detoxify overachievement, we know that the more mistakes we make, the more we learn.  The more we learn, the more we minimize mistakes as we master a discipline.  Error can instead be the enemy that we keep very close to our chest.

Detoxifying overachievement means understanding that we learn just as much — if not more – from our failures as we do from our successes. The more we learn about a discipline, the better we get at mastering the processes that help us better learn it.  We are therefore constantly iterating better versions of ourselves as we err.  To detoxify overachievement, we must model this for our school’s community–students, parents, colleagues, etc.  We can inform students and parents on topics like student development, social/emotional wellness, and neurodiversity.  We also can seek professional development opportunities in those topics as well.  Instead of seeking out the status of having learned, we can seek out the joy in the process of learning.

This is easier written—or for that matter said — than done.  Finding joy in the process of learning can be difficult — especially when most toxic overachievers tie success to being good and failure to being bad.  This is a fixed mindset that we must overcome in order to detoxify overachievement.  To foster the joy in learning, we must recognize where our students are developmentally and validate the emotional experience that comes along with the detoxification process.  We must have an inventory of strategies and tools to support our students as they detoxify.  Below is a list of 5 strategies that will support students in a toxic culture of overachievement and encourage a more joyful learning experience: 

  1. Develop lessons and curricula based upon student interests and real life relevance.  Abstraction and rigor have their place in secondary education, but so does relevance.  As students transition from the concrete to formal operational stages of cognitive development, their zones of proximal development usually need motivation from practical and tangible tasks and problems.  Even cognitively advanced students can appreciate the depth and breadth that a practical application can contribute to the learning experience.  The joy of learning here comes from the synthesis and creation of a more personalized educational experience.
  1. Offer time and space for prompted reflection and contemplation.  Considering the intense focus upon outcomes in a culture of toxic overachievement, many stakeholders often take little or no time to consistently and intentionally reflect upon the process of learning.  Due to normalization toward neurotypical teaching and learning strategies, oftentimes many neuroatypical students in a culture of toxic overachievement can get lost in the constant focus on outcomes and status.  Instead of being present in the learning experience, students- neurotypical and atypical alike- can get pulled into a depressive state about past grades or an anxious state about an upcoming assessment.  Thoughtful, prompted reflection provides a routine for pulling toxic overachievers into the present and focuses them on the process of learning.  
  1. Offer multidimensional and growth based metrics for defining student achievement in the classroom.  As addressed above, grades are not the end-all-be-all for measuring student performance in the classroom.  Toxic overachievers value them so highly because they are based 100% in outcomes and offer a quick snapshot of status.  Those of us looking to detoxify overachievement understand that in a classroom, there is more going on than merely seeing the total number of points earned out of the total number of possible points.  Grades offer fixed points whose outcome can vary according to a student’s emotional state, the temperature of the room, or even the weather outside.  They fail to take into account the most fundamental element of learning- growth.  Toxic overachievers may be so focused on outcomes that they may fail to realize subtle improvements in their learning.  To detoxify overachievement, we have to shift the seeking of status over another to seeking growth from one’s self yesterday to their selves of today.  Multidimensional and growth metrics for learning should reference criteria and not norms.  To detoxify overachievement, stakeholders should compare a student’s learning outcomes to his, her, or their own and no one else’s.  We can assess factors such as student interest in a topic, a student’s ability to use the language of the discipline, a student’s ability to solve problems in the discipline, a student’s ability to work at a level of cognitive depth within the discipline, etc.  There is and should not be a one size fits all approach to measuring student learning and each metric should be 100% based upon the individual student.
  1. Warmly deliver social, emotional, and academic support to students with learning differencese.g. neurodiverse students, students dealing with personal trauma, or students with other developmental constraints or needs.  In a culture of toxic overachievement, students with learning differences are often ignored or disregarded.  Educators enmeshed in the toxic culture of overachievement may fail to take into account or fail to see how the unique learning needs of students with learning differences serve in the detoxification process.  Recognizing and accommodating learning differences in the classroom communicates the importance of maintaining a mindset of growth and provides equity to students whose circumstances do not necessarily set them up for the usual definition of achievement in toxic overachievement.  As teachers, we can model warmth and understanding for our students with learning differences.  We can help them recognize that whatever the inference with their learning is, it does not define their worth as a learner.  
  1. Look for reasons to celebrate learning, while allowing students the space to process negative feelings regarding failure.  During our detoxification from overachievement, we must allow for all of the feelings that come along with the experience to present—related to both failure and success.  Simply forcing a student to focus only on the “bright side” without providing them space to process their feelings regarding failure completely gaslights their experience.  Expecting students to only focus on the positive, feeds into the toxicity by providing students with another expected outcome to meet- i.e. students must only celebrate their failures because the teacher expects them to do so.  Instead, as we detoxify overachievement, we should recognize both the clouds and their silver lining.  We can provide a safe space for reflection and offer ourselves as sounding boards for processing.  We can choose language that recognizes and validates the spectrum of emotional experiences regarding learning.  We can value open and honest feedback.  We can model healthy emotional expression and processing.  We can refer students out to other professionals who are more equipped to meet their needs in extreme cases of emotional expression.  We can provide our students with unconditional presence as they develop emotional resilience and learn to take away growth from each learning experience.  

Detoxifying a culture of overachievement is by no means an easy task.  Overachievement is ingrained into a culture that values outcome over process.  Toxic overachievement is rooted entirely in the status of those outcomes for one student over another.  To detoxify a culture of overachievement requires thoughtful planning of curriculum and instruction and mindful management of student behavior.  

As educators, we can recognize toxic thoughts and behaviors and model a mindset of growth, inclusion, and authenticity.  We can create classroom routines and procedures that encourage thoughtful and reflective practices in our disciplines.  We can provide all students with a least restrictive environment that helps them better understand their own interests and learning needs.  We can develop a community of overachievers, whose primary focus is achieving more of themselves today than they did yesterday.  We can develop a community of learners who are only seeking status for their future selves over their past selves.

Michael Wilt teaches Honors Geometry and Algebra 2 at the Harker School in San Jose, California.  In his spare time, he enjoys watching television, being outdoors, anything to do with food, and exercising.  His life’s passion is helping people achieve a more balanced physical, mental, and spiritual lifestyle.

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