Beginning at Hyde: Effort over Achievement

Biology/Honors Chemistry teacher Robert Tunney recently joined the Hyde faculty on the Woodstock Campus.

Around this time of year, incoming students are adapting to the culture of principle and introspection that sets Hyde schools apart. Many are jarred by a school in which courage and integrity are as central to the curriculum as mathematics and literature.  Many families have just completed their first family weekend, an experience that taxes and rejuvenates us as we do hard work to understand the dynamics of our families and how we can work together to be at our collective best. As a new teacher in my first year on the Woodstock campus, I’m walking alongside you as you come to grips with Hyde’s unique educational philosophy. I’m reconciling its methods with my own through a combination of analysis and trust.  I’m stretching myself beyond the boundaries of my own comfort and presumed abilities. And as I hope you too will experience, I’m an equal beneficiary in the achievement of deeds and personal growth that Hyde enables for its active participants.

One of the tenets of Hyde’s philosophy that I’ve found most attractive is “effort over achievement.” It’s a principle from which I believe I and the schools I attended could have benefited a great deal. I come from a highly achievement-oriented background.  I went to a well funded public school that was for all intents and purposes like an elite private school, and then I went on to attend an Ivy League university. That is to say, I’m a prime candidate to be skeptical about a philosophy of effort over achievement. For all of my life, achievement has been the best thing I’ve had going for me. I can pass tests and complete assignments with relative ease, and I genuinely like learning in an academic setting. And yet I’ve rarely felt pride in my work. What my own teachers acknowledged as good work usually did not require much effort on my part, and I was secretly unimpressed with my performance – not to mention skeptical of my teachers’ judgment – because I knew that I could have done better. But why should I bother? What incentive is there to perform to your best in a system where a halfhearted effort will receive an A, and energetic commitment will earn no more? More broadly, the abiding educational model fails to bring the best out of students because it encourages us to identify a grade that is “good enough” and to perform to the minimum standard required to achieve that grade. It’s a system that encourages us to compete with a bell curve rather than with our personal best. By placing a premium on achievement rather than effort, we’re alternately dissuaded from pushing ourselves when we suspect that our achievement will fall short of a prescribed goal, or we’re demoralized when our sincere best effort does not put us high on the curve.  True victories are rare when the grade is an end in and of itself.

In the summer program I’ve been doing my best to model the effort that we demand of our students. This has included enduring some intimidating and unpleasant experiences. Over the course of the summer, incoming students are tasked with a barrage of challenges which are varied enough that a few of them are bound to make everyone uncomfortable. To the best I can figure, this is the point of these challenges. Or rather, the point is to task everyone – students and faculty alike – with challenges that seem intimidating and insurmountable from one end and victoriously (if inexpertly) accomplished from the other. Effort over achievement. But there’s more: effort leads to achievement. I can’t speak for everyone, but completing some of the more daunting challenges in front of me has made me feel pretty confident and accomplished. In our first week, we had to run a timed mile. I hadn’t run a mile in about five years, and it would not be an exaggeration to say that I was dreading it. I didn’t know if I could do it, and I didn’t want to embarrass myself for my lack of athletic prowess. But I did it to the best of my ability, partially because it was my job and partially because I’m not very good at doing things half way. By the end of the mile I was in pain, panting, and collapsed into a ball on the turf, but I had achieved what I thought was impossible. What’s more, I felt a sincere sense of accomplishment, which isn’t something that I feel every day. I’ve run a mile every week since, and I’ve run it faster every time.

By this point I hope the wisdom of effort over achievement is clear. Effort not only is achievement, but it’s a more authentic and purposeful brand of achievement than what passes muster at most schools. When achievement is set as the sincere personal best that flows from a concerted effort, students can feel pride in the recognition that they receive for their work. When the standard of evaluation is wholehearted commitment to the task at hand, teachers can give sincere praise for a student’s individual improvement, irrespective of where their performance falls on a curve. By reconceptualizing achievement as a product of our best effort rather than as an objective standard or a standard relative to one’s peers, we can draw out what is actually our greatest potential at a given point in time. This is a model that’s more motivating, just and logical than what we commonly encounter, as we cannot reasonably expect more from anyone than their personal best. Thus at Hyde we task ourselves with ambitious challenges and ask no more or less than our sincere best effort. It’s a philosophy that’s been working pretty well for me.

Robert Tunney