What Does It Mean to Be a "Good" Student?
What does it mean to say someone is a "good" student? Today Danielle breaks down the stereotype of the perfect student and why grades alone don't define children. She also examines the systems and barriers that stop young girls and students of color from reaching their fullest potential.
What does it mean when we say someone is a good student?
I figure that for many of us a “good” student means someone who gets high (if not
perfect) grades, is never late to class, and always has a readily sharpened pencil somewhere
close at hand.
We don't think of strugglers, stragglers or people with performances that fluctuate.
But confession time: at different points in my own academic career, I’ve been that person.
So, how did I go from the kid who almost failed 3 classes 8th grade to earning a PhD?
Looking back, my struggles with school stemmed from issues with adolescent mental health
Luckily, I was able to get these under control early on with help from teachers, counselors,
and my family.
And yet throughout the ups and downs I’ve always considered myself, at heart, a “good”
student—even when my grades and performance belied this feeling.
And that’s the big question on my mind this week: what does it mean when we say “good” student?
Who do we assume that good students are?
What do they look like?
What’s their background?
And what factors keep certain groups specifically from achieving academic success?
Specifically, I want to talk about young girls.
Because, look, this video started with me reflecting on my own life and strife with
our education system and that makes me wonder: what are some of the barriers facing young
And how are we assessing what young girls need in classrooms throughout the US?
Well one barrier to success for young girls in school could be good old fashioned gender
bias...although maybe that’s the wrong wording since there’s nothing “good” but plenty
“old fashioned” about gender bias.
A 2015 study from the “Making Caring Common” project at the Harvard School of Graduate
Education found gender bias over teen girls leadership abilities was present not only
in the adults around them but also in their peers.
The research team, led by Richard Weissbourd, found several key findings after surveying
nearly 20,000 students.
First: “Almost a quarter of teen girls--23%--preferred male over female political leaders while only
8% of girls preferred female political leaders, with 69% reporting no difference in preference.”
Second: “Forty-percent of teen boys preferred male over female political leaders while only
4% preferred female political leaders with 56% expressing no preference."
And third, as a specific group, white girls tended to be biased against other white girls
Although in a scenario meant to demonstrate bias, Black and Latino boys and girls appeared
to face leadership bias as well.
This implicit bias against seeing them as leaders could be one of the contributing factors
that impede young girls at school and in the workforce after graduation, because girls
may be viewed as less capable than their male counterparts.
Another challenge is gender bias coupled with racial bias.
Racial bias negatively impacts not only young girls in the US, but all people of color who
are moving through traditional academic routes.
One emergent issue that young girls and boys of color face in the US today is the aptly
named school to prison pipeline, or a system where disciplinary infractions at school lead
to eventual imprisonment or time spent in juvenile detention centers.
And as this practice has become more and more common in schools across the country, students
of color and young girls of color are being disproportionately impacted.
A 2015 report found that black boys are 3 times more likely to be suspended than white
boys and black girls are a staggering 6 times more likely to be suspended than their white
The report also found that for young girls of color, at times the security rituals of
entering a school, for example, searches, metal detectors and increased number of law
enforcement officials, sometimes contributed to girls feeling less safe.
They could even be deterrents to attending school altogether.
Additionally, girls of color and black girls were more likely to be referred for punitive
methods of conflict resolution in school, which leads to greater involvement in the
juvenile justice system than if restorative responses (like counseling and therapy) had
Additionally girls of color and black girls’ other struggles like trauma from interpersonal
violence, harassment and bullying often go unmet or unnoticed in schools unless a punishable
offense occurs, meaning that these issues are only addressed through punishment.
And some of the girls in the study reported acting out as a result of not having their
I can personally say that when I was a struggling student, the fact that educators around me
used suggestions for restorative methods of addressing the problem instead of just suspending
me or kicking me out of school made a world of difference.
Their focus was on addressing the underlying issues and not just punishing me for falling
behind in my classes and acting out.
And being overlooked or unfairly treated on the basis of gender or race can lead to various
negative mental health outcomes for students.
A 2016 report from the JED Foundation and the Steve Fund found that by the time they
were in the early years of college, these mental health disparities were starting to
show amongst students.
The report found that among the approximately 1,500 1st year students surveyed, white students
were more likely than their African American peers to feel emotionally prepared for college.
And African American students were more likely than their white counterparts to keep those
feelings to themselves.
So how do we solve all of these mounting problems?
Well in the case of leadership bias, the study recommends checking our implicit and explicit
bias about female leadership and not passing on those biases to young girls who are experiencing
their first leadership positions in schools.
And for girls of color and young black girls who are being disproportionately impacted
by the school to prison pipeline, the answer could be looking for solutions that center
care, outreach and help over punitive measures like suspension, expulsion, or prison.
And in all cases, access to mental health care and counseling could have a positive
impact for young girls and students of color who are struggling with microaggressions,
imposter syndrome and depression in school.
On a final note, I think that a lot of these solutions are actually asking us to think
differently about what it means to be a “good” student.
Part of the problem is that we start from the assumption that there is such a thing
as a prototypical “good” student who has impeccable grades, no disciplinary issues,
and excels at everything that they do.
But what I've learned from my own history both as a struggling student and as an educator
today, is that good students come in all shapes and packages.
A student can get poor grades in class and still be exceptionally talented.
A student can struggle or be misjudged or mistreated and still have gifts that exceed
what we're teaching them in the classroom.
Being a good student doesn't mean that you never struggle.
Rather it should mean that in spite of the challenges you face inside and outside of
the classroom, you still have a willingness to learn.
It was one of the greatest gifts of my life that at a time when I was failing as a student,
my teachers, family and counselors never looked at me as a failure.
Instead they saw what I was struggling with something and worked to address my struggles.
If you take anything from this video, let it be this: Empathy in the classroom, rather
than antipathy, can yield incredible results.
After all, young students everywhere deserve every chance they can get to be a “good