By Linda Ritchie.

A funny thing happens when I walk into my English classroom; everyone – me included – assumes that I am there to teach the students. However, the exact opposite is true. For the past six years, I have passionately imparted my love for literature to many teenagers – some happy to be there and others distinctly less so. During this time, I’ve been deeply humbled to realise that my students are actually there to teach me. Not specifically in the areas of grammar and Gatsby (although this has certainly happened). Rather, these unique students have shown me what it means to be an academic success IN GOD’S EYES. I owe these discoveries to them.

The world tells us that academic success is synonymous with academic excellence, sporting success includes wearing the top team’s jersey and cultural success equates to getting the lead role in the drama production. All of these achievements are certainly praiseworthy – for the select few who are able to achieve them.  However, these yardsticks for success are based on two erroneous assumptions: first, you can only be a success if you are a top achiever in a given field and second, all people are created with equal ability and opportunity.

This is where I believe that we, as Christians, need to transform our thinking. I’m sure that most of us are familiar with Paul’s instruction in Romans 12:1 and 2:

“I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

The Bible is very clear that God delights in us, His creation – “And God saw everything that He had made, and behold, it was very good” (Gen. 1:31). However, God’s Word never says that we are all created with the same abilities. In fact, the Bible emphasises that God gave us all different aptitudes: “But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift” (Eph. 4:7). Earlier in the same passage, Paul instructs the Ephesians to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, … eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4: 2 and 3). God clearly gave us different talents to strengthen us as a community, not to divide us into the “successful” and the “unsuccessful”.

Based on this understanding, how should we renew our thinking on academic success in the classroom?  As an English teacher, I have learnt that every child is able to improve in my subject, but not every child is able to achieve a distinction. When I came to this realisation, I started to emphasise improvement, rather than academic excellence, in my class. I keep a record of each student’s mark for the first test of the year, compare that result with subsequent tests, and award any student who improves by five percent with a small treat, ten percent improvement receives two treats, and so on. We have a celebratory award ceremony in the class and (I hope) the students feel acknowledged for their improvements.

What does this transformation in thinking mean for us, as parents? I believe we need to focus on God’s instruction in Colossians 3:23: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters” (NIV). We should encourage our children to work their hardest and achieve THEIR personal best in every academic endeavour. A personal best for some children may be 60 percent, while for others it may be 85 percent. This is largely due to the fact that today’s examinations are very different to the “old days” when examinations mainly tested a student’s ability to regurgitate memorised facts. Up to 40% of today’s examinations can be based on students’ ability to apply their knowledge to new material. I have found that the correlation between knowledge and successful application is closely linked to God-given ability. As a result, a person can study extremely hard and receive a lower mark than a person who did half the work, but has a more natural talent for the subject.

I’ll use my own experience to illustrate this point. I love poetry and God has given me a natural aptitude for it. Not so for many of my students, for whom unseen poetry is the equivalent of reading a foreign language. Now, put a Maths Investigation in front of me and I am lost. Useless. In the eyes of the world, a failure. Do you see my point? As parents, we need to understand that each child has unique strengths and weaknesses. The same is true for adults. I can’t cook, for example, while my husband is a gourmet chef – everybody accepts that reality (although, I’m sure my children wish that it wasn’t true!). If we recognise this truth for adults, why do we expect our children to excel at everything? I think Einstein expressed this concept brilliantly: “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”  As parents, we should and must expect the best possible effort from our children, as this is God-honouring and indicative of academic success.

As we renew our thinking on academic success, let’s focus on Jesus – our role model for success in every aspect of life:

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