Celebrating the Late Bloomer
I recently read an article about children as young as seven-years-old who are starting businesses and nonprofits. While their efforts are impressive and admirable, and I love the entrepreneurial spirit and service-mindedness of these children, the story also gives me pause because the narrative reminds me of the high school students who come to my office to chat about academics. These conversations often veer toward the college admissions process, and I frequently hear girls as young as ninth grade apologize for not knowing yet what their college major will be or for not having started a club, or not doing fill-in-the blank activity. My response is always the same: “That’s okay!”
More than ever, our students face pressure (whether societal, familial, or otherwise, and probably some of each) to specialize in a sport at an early age, focus intensely on an extracurricular interest, and/or to be a prodigy. Many students focus on taking as many honors/AP classes as their schedules will allow and getting a high GPA (to the detriment of their health in some cases). I have been asked to round up test scores, semester grades, and GPA points because a student is “so close.” For some students and families, there is an obsession with getting into the “right” college because it leads to the “right” job and “right” life -- a neatly wrapped bundle without a single wrinkle. However, even the most skillful wrapping can unravel. So, I keep asking myself -- how do we account for the late bloomer, and more importantly, how might we celebrate the late bloomer?
A lot of definitions of the term “late bloomer” focus on words and phrases such as “average,” “mediocre,” “late to develop,” but the definition that resonates with me centers on the idea of a person who eventually finds something interesting enough to pursue. A student who never had much interest in school might get the opportunity one day to take a class or have a job that captivates her attention. And that curiosity leads the student to blossom. School and even life should be a time to explore and discover. At my school, we want our students to do just that. Our teachers design classes and extracurricular activities with all students in mind. One example: our Athletics department added a bowling team this year. Our goal is not to groom future PBA World Champions; rather, we hope students engage in fun, form friendships, support others, and learn what it feels like to be supported by peers. And if the experience on this team eventually sparks a light in one student, I will celebrate! Another example is our baking club. The mission of the club is for student members to bake for service organizations, but the club might ignite something else in a student: artistic, collaborative, or negotiation skills, patience, or simply even that it is okay to make a mess.
In a society that loves to celebrate early accomplishments, what might happen if we shifted and started to celebrate the late bloomer or, as I once read, the “right-on-time” bloomers? Would we reduce the stress level of students? Would the college admissions process change? Could we help young women find a sense of peace and confidence in themselves? I do not know the answer to any of these questions, but I would love for all students to be granted the freedom, curiosity, and courage to sample and find the spark that lights them up, whether that is in ninth grade or at any point in their lifetime.
Rather than solely praising high achievement and accomplishments, what might it look like if teachers celebrated all students, including the late bloomers in the classroom? I am not talking about bestowing awards on all students, but are there ways to recognize a student who does not fit the college entrance standards of success? Here are a few suggestions:
Encourage students to take risks and try new things. Our freshman English teachers assign students to book clubs in class in addition to reading anchor texts in class. The clubs provide students the opportunity to choose from a list of text choices to inspire reading a new genre, author, or a book written in a different era. Our standardized test prep unit in math provides students with pathways. These opportunities allow students the time and space to figure out if they prefer practicing problems on their own or working with a group of peers and if they prefer an app on their phone, an online program, or working with pencil and paper.
Share and discuss with students a new hobby you are trying or your career path that has not been a traditional straight line. Let students know that you enjoy trying new things and have curiosity and wonder and that it is okay to veer from a starting point. One of my favorite personal stories to share with students is how I opted to leave my Ivy-League doctoral program before receiving my degree from the university because the program did not excite me. I acknowledge that by diverging from that straight line, my career timeline changed, but I found other options in life that energized me.
Relinquish any one-size fits all, standardized expectations for students. Treat each student as the individual she is. And remember that students today are not the same as students ten, five, even one year ago. Nor should they be!
Elizabeth Smith is the Dean of Academics at Ursuline Academy of Dallas and a late bloomer.