Confessions of An Overachieving Parent, Part II

By: Matt Mitchell, Head of School

Dominion offers a compelling college-preparatory education using the time-tested classical model in the context of a Christian worldview.  We are passionate about the liberal arts and about helping each child achieve to his or her fullest God-given potential.  Yet, we also recognize that the overachieving culture of Northern Virginia often creates unique challenges. The following blog post is an installment in a series of reflections that will be posted from Matt Mitchell, our Head of School, as he shares observations, perspectives, and personal experiences in support of balancing the pursuit of excellence with the pursuit of reasonableness.

A month or two ago, I completed a series of Common Application college recommendations for several of Dominion’s seniors. In case you are unfamiliar, the Common Application is an option that allows students to apply to multiple schools using a single online form.

This year, the irony of the recommendation form hit me anew. We are asked to assess a range of characteristics for each student – things like academic achievement, intellectual promise, quality of writing, creativity, maturity, motivation, and leadership potential. I understand why a college wants to know how well these descriptors apply to a prospective student. That part didn’t bother me. What struck me for the first time, though, is the scale on which we must evaluate these characteristics.

First, we can suggest that the student is “below average.” What teacher does that? These days, it’s a death sentence for a student’s college aspirations. Second, we can indicate that the student is “average.” An “average” rating in more than one or two areas is pretty close to being a death sentence, too, so most educators avoid that one whenever they have the slightest cause to be more charitable. Then, we can choose from a range of not one, not two, but five possible shades of “above average.” A student may simply be “above average,” or he or she may be “well above average.” And, in case those choices are insufficient, the student may also be in the “top 10%,” “top 5%,” or “one of the top few I have seen in my career.”

We rate Dominion’s students in terms of how they would compare against a general student population, not just against the peers in their class or our school. We don’t have a large enough of a sample in each class to make the data reliable without broadening our perspective to include all students. Compared with other students nationally, most of our students are truly “above average.” Likewise, lest I risk sounding too cynical about the college recommendation process, I must acknowledge that teachers love their students, and this surely affects how they rate them. I am sure that the scale is designed as a nod to a teacher’s tendency to be generous when he or she rates a student. I’m also aware that the college admissions process has become infinitely competitive, and schools must have a means of distinguishing the “truly above average” students from the “my teacher really wants to rate me as being above average even though I’m not” students.

Still, this part of the college entrance process doesn’t settle well with me. Maybe that’s because I was an average —or (gasp!) often a below average – student until I hit college, but then I went on to earn a Master’s degree. It wasn’t until I hit my late-teens when my mind awakened fully. Or, maybe it’s because I’ve seen many students who are average at most things and exceptional at some things. Should a child who is average in English and history but brilliant in math and science be held back from becoming a mathematician? Should the musician be unable to study music because he is not a good math student? Or, maybe I’m just concerned because – by definition – the word “average” includes most of us. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be an “average.”

The Common Application is just one example of how children and teens are being bombarded with messages suggesting that being average is not okay. Where did we lose the freedom for our kids to be ordinary? When did a “B” become the new “C?” I’m not entirely sure, but I know that I must acknowledge that even if we want to battle these pressures, we must wrestle with the fact that our children often compete in a system that is rigged against us. Still, I think the pressures are worth battling.

I must also confess that, as a parent, I am a big part of the problem. What dad wants his kids to be “average?” And, even if I say that I’m okay with having an ordinary kid, I know that my heart isn’t always behind that statement. The fix begins with me…and you…and with other parents. We need to accept that the majority of us are, by definition, average at most things and exceptional at some things. We need to help our children find their gifts and use them for God’s glory, but we also need to help them understand that their identity is in Christ, not in those innate abilities or achievements. We must teach them to value people because they are created in the image of God, not because they are smart or overachievers. We must change our expectations, our language, and our culture. That’s not easy, but a spark can grow to a flame. Let’s be the spark.