How do we define success at New Trier High School?

By Timothy Dohrer

For the past two years, New Trier administrators and staff have posed an important question for serious self-reflection: How do we define success at New Trier High School? In a school steeped in a deep tradition of excellence and high expectations, it is easy to have a one-dimensional view of success. However, New Trier also has a history of teaching the whole child and emphasizing life-long learning. Students here are much more than a letter grade or an ACT score. So when a graduate walks across the stage to receive her diploma, what does that represent? What has made that student’s experience a success?

At our most recent fall Institute Day, the entire staff had the opportunity to explore these questions through a variety of lenses. Teachers and staff attended workshops and engaged in critical discussions about how we define and measure success. For example, several of the workshop sessions looked at content area reading strategies, developing habits of mind, and the role of technology on learning. In another strand, we discussed how successful we are in dealing with issues of diversity, ethical conduct, wellness, and service. At the end of the day, we heard from Sam Harris, a New Trier graduate and Holocaust survivor. Sam spoke to us about the impact New Trier had on him and that the Illinois Holocaust Museum would not exist today had it not been for his experience at New Trier High School. For many of us, the workshops and Sam’s life story suggest that success is not easily defined or measured by single definition or test.

As an educational institution, we live by our motto, “minds to inquiry, hearts to compassion, and lives to the service of humanity.”  We believe in this motto, but do we measure success equally through the lens of each of the three components?  To us, the three parts of this motto translate into the head, the heart, and the hands of each individual.  The intellectual lens, “minds to inquiry,” is one that we are accustomed to using, assessing, measuring, and discussing.  After all, we are educators, and our natural tendency is to view our work through the intellectual lens.  Viewing our work and setting goals through the heart lens, “hearts to compassion,” takes a consciousness that is not always obvious.  If we measure the success of our students through this specific lens, we need to have a better understanding what success might look like.  At New Trier, we say that we are all about service to others.  While many of our students are deeply involved in service organizations, we must ask ourselves if we explicitly measure success by viewing it through the hands lens, “lives to the service of humanity.”  The discussions that we are having around the word “success” are energizing and thought provoking.

In Webster’s New College Dictionary, success is defined as “1.  The gaining of something desired, planned, or attempted.  2.a.  The gaining of fame or prosperity.  b.  The extent of such gain.”  We all want our young people to be successful, but we also want to better define what it is that we are gaining.  As we “desire and plan” what it is we want to gain, let us all be mindful of the different lenses we use to define success.