A Portrait of a Learner
Is Hard Work Enough?
November 12, 2017
Nathan Porter is the type of middle-schooler you notice right away in the hallway. At almost six feet tall, he towers over classmates. Without having had time to fill out his body, he is rail thin. Wearing clothes that both begin to classify him as an adult and struggle to keep up with his growing body, Nathan has the quintessential adolescent, post-growth spurt look. Every day, his long hair is pulled back into a tight bun. Quite simply, Nathan stands out.
But observe one of Nathan’s classes, and he might be the last middle-schooler you notice. Rarely one to raise his hand or cause disruptions, he can disappear into the background of a room as students who stir up commotion and regularly raise their hands draw the attention. Though a teacher’s dream student in many ways – hard-working, smart, diligently prepared, attentive – he can escape the notice of nearly everyone by being who he is. Where teachers focus so much attention on the top-performing, outgoing seventh graders whose hands shoot up and the kids who struggle, either with the material or with classroom discipline, they can overlook those students in the middle who follow a quieter, more autonomous route. Nathan fades to the background in classes because of the very trait he believes will carry him forward - his faith in hard work and listening. While some suggest the private school faith in hard work is naive, Nathan’s embodiment and commitment of that lifestyle will help him succeed should teachers neither misjudge his quiet approach for disengagement, nor interpret his hard work as a sign that he does not want or need support.
“I’m definitely not a morning person.” Nathan begins his description of himself with what he is not. The response is a strange one on the surface as an answer to the “tell me a little bit about yourself” prompt. “I try my best to be on time,” he continues, “but it can be a little difficult.” As Nathan goes on, the answers make a little more sense. Coming from a military family, he is the youngest of four brothers. Nathan’s parents have imparted on him the value of promptness, and though he may be a morning person, he has to be the first one awake. Everyone has roles to play in the family, and Nathan’s preliminary task each day is to fight his instinct to sleep so that he can get his brothers up and out the door on time. “I know that not a lot of things in life are going to be easy,” he says with a maturity well beyond that of his peers, “so I try to do my best.”
“Mom and Dad taught me that hard work leads to results when I was fairly young and it has stuck with me,” Nathan continues. It is his first mention of the work ethic he will keep coming back to. He knows how strange this mentality may seem in a middle-schooler, and does not fault his classmates who do not have the same focus. “There are times when I’m like this thinking about all this [hard work],” he says, “but there are other times when I just act like a 13-year-old boy.” In art class, Nathan has a substitute teacher for the day. While his classmates terrorize the substitute as middle-schoolers are prone to do, Nathan keeps his head down, focused on his assignment to draw an upside-down Picasso portrait. Only once amid the 40 minutes of chaos does Nathan crack a smile. When I press him on his feelings about his classmates’ actions, he refuses to judge the behavior, saying, “it’s just one of those whatever things.” Though the 13-year-old boy inside Nathan emerges with his smile at one of the jokes, he will neither let his classmates goad him into being disrespectful, nor distract him from his work. He claims to enjoy these lighter moments in the day where he can relax a little bit, but even then, he cannot put aside the work ethic.
What Nathan sees as the best part of Gilman is the size of the school, which is small enough where teachers can help individuals. When a student has a question, in class or outside the classroom, he has the time to find the teacher and work one-on-one with him or her in a variety of spaces. “If you really don’t get something,” he tells me, “you can ask questions during study hall, athletics, or whenever the teacher has spare time.” Nathan knows he cannot always succeed in the classroom without teachers’ aid as some can, but by asking and listening to clarification questions now and then, he feels he can understand the material better than most. “I see myself kind of in the middle,” he adds. He recognizes there are others with higher IQs and more resources, but he believes he can succeed by listening to their questions, clarifying points of confusion, and putting his head down and studying.
That approach particularly suits History class, where Nathan thrives. One activity he enjoys occurs when Mr. Lime has the students write editorials about the events they are learning about, as if the students are journalists. Nathan’s responses hint at the writing career he seeks, full of imagery and detail uncommon for a 7th grader. Portraying a revolutionary war soldier penning a letter to the Maryland Gazette after the war, he writes, “all of us being together will make us a strong nation that will prosper on from here, and God help anyone who stands in the way of our nation, in the way of freedom, and in the way of the great George Washington.” “I like how it all fits together like a story,” Nathan says about history, “but it actually happened.” He sees the cause and effect relationships that form the narrative, how one event can lead to another in ways his peers cannot yet. “When I’m writing, it just feels natural,” he adds, “I don’t have to stop and think.” However, even in that class, as I observe, Nathan raises his hand only once. He lets his classmates fill the air space, sitting upright and attentively taking notes.
While Mr. Lime recognizes Nathan’s talent in his writing and knows not to look at the class participation for evidence of his engagement, other teachers do not get that chance in the areas where there is not as much writing. Math has proved the most difficult subject for Nathan. In a math class I attend, Nathan’s demeanor is markedly different as the teacher tries to confuse his students for the first half of his lesson. While other boys verbalize their confusion, Nathan begins to slouch in his chair, taking notes, but not turning around to look at the teacher when he goes to the back of the classroom. Through the full forty minutes, Nathan does not speak or raise his hand. Though it might appear to his teacher that Nathan had disengaged, Nathan contends that when he is confused, he just likes to listen. “Other people will have questions that I haven’t thought about,” he tells me, “so I kind of just listen to the answers.” While he listens, he takes copious notes, so that when he studies, he can look at more than just practice problems. Uncomfortable with my line of questions about his lack of participation that class, he adds, unprompted, “The reason I didn’t say anything was because I was still trying to figure it out myself. I saw I wasn’t noticing what other people were noticing, so I was trying to see if it was correct or if I agreed.” Unwilling to merely accept his classmates’ answers, Nathan wants to work through the confusion on his own.
Whether it may be turning in optional drafts for Language Arts papers or retaking a failed quiz not to improve his grade, Nathan chooses the academic path that will push him to ensure he learns the material. That affinity for hard work manifests itself beyond the classroom even in the hobbies he chooses to do to relax, such as mentally-taxing activities like running and piano-playing. Running forces him to control his pace, challenging his mind as he pushes the limits of his body physically. Piano requires the same sort of discipline. “When I’m learning something new I have to keep doing it until I understand it,” he says, explaining that he carves out practice time nearly every day for his hobby. Though memorization does not come easily, he values the process of working hard at something until he achieves it. He himself relates this process to studying for a grammar quiz, where he looks back at his notes, reviewing practice problems over and over until he understands why he got some wrong and others right. For Nathan, hard work is not merely an aspiration, but a practiced and lived way to mold his life.
Though a younger student, Nathan appears similar to Mary, whom Shamus Khan describes at length in his 2011 book about St. Paul’s, an elite private boarding school. His description of Mary suits Nathan too, “For most Paulies, hard work was a mode of understanding but for Mary it was a way in which she organized her life” (Khan, 2011, p. 102). He continues, “she embodied not only the notion ‘work hard, get ahead’ but an even more uncool manifestation: that working hard was the only way to get ahead” (2011, p. 102). Though Nathan has thus far not encountered the workload that would require him to scamper around campus frantically, he otherwise matches Mary’s drive.
In work on elite private schools, Peter Kuriloff & Michael Reichert (2003) report an expectation that Khan alludes to that students should “develop a cool, ‘no sweat’ style that suggest[s] their achievements [are] effortless” (p. 753). Nathan and Mary stick out as outliers in this system. However, despite the students not wanting to look they work hard, Kuriloff & Reichert also note that students want to talk about work as the reason for their place in the world. At the Haverford School, “boys explained their own success and that of others in terms of their drive” (Kuriloff & Reichert, 2003, p. 756). Though they want to appear like they do not need to work hard, they still believe their position at an elite school arose from their own hard work. “Hard work [is] a frame,” Khan writes, “that students [mobilize] to code their advancement within hierarchies, but this frame [does] involve an attendant corporeal display of effort” (2011, p. 103). These students outwardly express their belief in hard work, but do not embody it like Nathan does.
Peter Cookson’s (1991) work on African-Americans in private schools becomes relevant to the discussion of Nathan’s work ethic and its potential value in his integration of race. He documents African-American students expressing optimism about where their hard work can take them. “With hard work the world lies at my feet,” one student says, while another offers, “I have plans for the future which I hope with a little hard work I can achieve” (Cookson, p. 224). The students he describes all recognize the challenges of the private school landscape, which can marginalize African-Americans like Nathan. Without the privilege that the students above have, the African-American students see private schooling “as a viable channel of attainment,” despite the route being fraught with challenges (Cookson, p. 222). For an African-American at an elite private school, embodying hard work can be the best tool to navigate the challenging climate they face.
Having been home-schooled, gone to school abroad, and lived in three states with his father’s different military stations, Nathan has not been entrenched in the private school world for long. But he has still seen a number of racial incidents that reveal challenges that may hinder his success. The last week at Gilman brought one such racial incident to the forefront of campus discussion. After media outlets circulated a photo of an upper-school student wearing a racially-insensitive Halloween costume, tensions rose inside Gilman’s walls. As an African-American student at a predominantly white private school, Nathan knows this type of issue might arise. “I can’t say I was surprised,” he says, “it’s not that I didn’t know stuff like this existed in schools, especially in private schools that are predominantly white.”
When Nathan speaks about race, he is calm. He stresses that he is upset by what is happening at Gilman. But not outraged. For while Nathan wants others held accountable, he contends that he feels safe and welcomed at the school. Furthermore, he believes his family’s military background has prepared him to succeed in any environment. “Wherever we’ve been, we’ve always been around different people,” he says, “like when I was in Germany and saw people with lighter skin, as in Texas, or in Hawaii, where we saw more people of Asian descent.” These experiences taught Nathan how to adapt, no matter the situation or the makeup of the people around him. “I learned to not really notice the racial differences.” While Nathan may be living in a racially charged moment at Gilman, he does not let that affect his attitude. What matters, he asserts, is that he continues to work hard. In affirming that he does not have the privilege that white students do, these racial incidents serve to emphasize to Nathan that hard work is his only way up.
In his work at St. Paul’s, Khan writes, “the faith that St. Paul’s students evince in the value of hard work—and of the limitless possibilities that work creates—is astounding, incredibly sweet, and very naïve” (Khan, 2011, p. 58). Khan might suggest Nathan’s stance on hard work is similarly astounding, sweet and naïve. Yet the work of Angela Duckworth, particularly her studies on middle school boys and discipline, refutes his point. Hard work does matter, and can create opportunities. Though Nathan may disappear from a teacher’s radar due his quiet approach, and may not take advantage of the one-on-one relationships with teachers as much because of his desire to work through confusion on his own, Duckworth’s early research on grit suggests his strategy will be fruitful.
In a 2005 longitudinal study of eighth-graders, she researched whether measures of self-discipline, based on self-report, parent-report, teacher-report and questionnaire data, will be better predictors of future academic performance than IQ. She found that “highly self-disciplined adolescents outperformed their more impulsive peers on every academic-performance variable” (Duckworth & Seligman, 2005, p. 941). Additionally, measurements of self-discipline in the fall predicted and accounted for more variance in every academic outcome in the spring than did IQ. Where IQ scores could not predict improvement from one semester to the next, self-discipline scores could. Six years later, after Duckworth had popularized the term “grit,” she examined in a 2011 study what types of studying and which traits best predict success at the National Spelling Bee, a competition for middle schoolers. She found deliberate practice, defined as studying alone, was a better predictor than being quizzed by others and reading for pleasure. Despite being the least popular study technique, deliberate practice was most effective. Interestingly, spellers with the highest scores for the “grit” trait were the most likely to choose deliberate practice. “More successful middle school students,” Duckworth et al. write, “choose more difficult learning tasks as compared to their less successful peers” (2011, p. 179).
Focused on the middle school age that Nathan occupies, these two studies are especially relevant to Nathan’s situation. For they both affirm the value of his disciplined approach centered on hard work as a predictor of future academic success. His inclination to choose the difficult path with work and with his hobbies suggests he possesses the crucial grit trait in abundance. The studies show that while Nathan may be choosing a more difficult path by choosing to work through confusion on his own, that will ultimately benefit him. Hard work, despite Khan’s assertion to the contrary, does matter, especially for middle schoolers.
Nathan Porter was not one to make himself heard. Soft-spoken, thoughtful, and reserved, his replies were measured as I asked him series of questions over three interviews. Though I would ask him to elaborate, his responses rarely exceeded a sentence, and almost never went beyond four. It would have been easy for me to find another student, someone more likely to open up, to give me the responses conducive to a true dialogue. But I knew I must stick with Nathan, for while his answers were short, giving voice to the quiet student remains vitally important to me as an educator.
Working with Nathan and observing him helped me see how easy it would be to overlook a student like him, who does not command or seek attention. I would not have guessed a student this driven would be so deferential to classmates and their questions, especially as someone who cherishes the opportunity to ask questions. I also saw how that approach can wear on a boy. While talking about hard work pervades the conversations of private school boys, backing up that rhetoric with grit can inadvertently isolate a student from his peers, especially at the middle school level. For while classmates respected Nathan, and listened to him in class, they were reluctant to joke with him the way they would with others in the hallway. At recess, Nathan was largely on his own, sitting on a bench rather than out with the hoards on the fields. Nathan knows his peers do not share his focus and work ethic. But the potential cost that he cannot closely relate to many in the middle school may loom large. While he has friends, they cannot connect on this large fundamental level.
Nathan’s trust in the system is clear. Even amid the social and racial challenges, he continues to work. But after my observations and interviews, I see how the system may inadvertently hinder Nathan’s success in its emphasis on participation. In my classroom, in assessing students, I want to deemphasize class participation in its traditional sense, changing participation to engagement, thereby recognizing individual differences and preferences. In this system, engagement could include working one-on-one with me outside the classroom, asking questions in class, or writing reflections on their learning process. I need to ensure that listening to each other and working through confusion, concepts I regularly emphasize, are truly rewarded. Through this project, I have seen how important it will be for me to reward and incentivize internal drives as powerfully built as Nathan’s. For though teachers seek internally motivated students, other forces inside the school work to extinguish the flame.
Cookson, P. & Persell, C. (1991). Race and class in America’s elite preparatory boarding schools: African Americans as the “outsiders within.” The Journal of Negro Education, 60. 219-228.
Duckworth, A., et al. (2011). Deliberate practice spells success: why grittier competitors triumph at the National Spelling Bee. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 2. 174-181.
Duckworth, A. & Seligman, M. (2005). Self-discipline outdoes IQ in predicting academic performance of adolescents. Psychological Science, 16. 939-944.
Khan, S. (2011). Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul’s School. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Kuriloff, P. & Reichert, M. (2003). Boys of class, boys of color: negotiating the academic and social geography of an elite independent school. Journal of Social Issues, 59. 751-769.