As a headmaster, I have heard each year, especially from new families, how difficult Sequitur’s education can be. I also hear and see how rewarding it is. Unfortunately, parents get in huddles to discuss the former and neglect to share the latter. It is true, though, that a great education is hard; all things worthy of our lives are hard: being a faithful Christian, being a good parent, maturing a faithful marriage, growing old in our minds and bodies. Last Christmas I was helping my aging grandfather get into the passenger seat of my mother’s car. This is a man who was a running back in the NFL, who was a high school principal, who knew strength to be a virtue, and who only reciprocated my “I love you,” in the past two years. And there he was. Unable to lift himself into a car. And so I was holding him, lifting him up. His left leg made it in, and he paused, still half out of the car. He sighed, out of breath. “Damn,” he said exhausted. “Getting old is hard.” He laughed. I laughed. “I’m proud of you. Let’s get one last push and get in there, like you’re running through that defensive line,” I said. He got in. His head leaned against the head rest. He closed his eyes and breathed.
The best things in life are hard, and we ought to be thankful for that. It is no different for education. The phrase on the side of my mug is one we all ought to remember. Not all things rigorous are things mortuous, things which will kill us. It is not true that whatever doesn’t kill us makes us stronger; it is true, however, that all good things we struggle at make us stronger. A great education, the kind our students are getting at Sequitur, is worth the struggle. For those students neck deep in the struggle, there are a few important discussions to be having with them, some good perspective to gain. But this perspective must be first gained by the parents.
- Are you struggling at a good thing? The very first thing a child should consider is whether the work that is causing such pain is worth the struggle. Is it good work? We will struggle in life. Sometimes we struggle because of our sin. Sometimes we struggle because of another’s sin. And sometimes we struggle because God is having favor upon us and he is calling us to tend to the garden. Struggling at good things is the core of holiness. Struggling under the weight of blessings is precisely what a good education is. Struggling under the weight of God’s favor will be what your child’s life is all about, if you desire for them to be a faithful Christian and to be successful at whatever God calls them to. First, make sure your child realizes that struggle in itself is not bad. Struggling at a good thing is necessary for the good life. A student’s school work is their vocation, it is their top priority; it is the work to which God has called them. If they are going to struggle anywhere, it should be there. If they are taking it as serious as it is, they will indeed hope to struggle.
- Are you working faithfully and joyfully? A student ought to never look at a grade book or grade or GPA to determine their academic success. Success cannot be quantified; all times we try to do so ends in idolatry. What our children should consider is that, even if their grades aren’t what they want and even if the struggle is more than is comfortable, are they working faithfully with joy. This is the mark which is pleasing to God. Translate this to my own work as a headmaster; consider all the things I cannot control: charitable giving, student enrollment, whether a teacher is absent, which teachers apply for a job, whether the toilets will work properly this week, whether our partners will change their mind and charge us much more for rent than they currently do. I can’t control any of this, and yet I am responsible for caring for it all to one degree or another. What I can control is how faithfully I’m working, and whether I’m doing it with a glad and sincere heart. Am I looking to God to provide for those things, to give the increase? Am I being faithful as a man with those things God gives to men? Then I am thankful to be called out of darkness into light, to serve the King of Kings, and to work faithfully with joy.
- Are you working efficiently and planning your time well? When a student struggles, it may be because some real academic weaknesses that need shoring up. However, it is more often the case that there are personal weaknesses that need maturing: procrastination, carelessness, ingratitude, lack of time management, and disorganization. A student struggling at these, who really doesn’t want to do the hard work of growing in them, will make their parent think their failure is due to the curriculum, the teacher, or the school; that the books are too hard, that he just doesn't “fit” with this education. And parents who are not willing to parent, who also don’t want to grow in the same things their child struggles with, will go headlong with their child into the error. Hard things require our students to grow up in good things, like time management and not procrastinating. Each year less than 10% of our students at Sequitur fail a class. And the vast majority of the ones who do failed because they didn’t turn in homework. I can provide the analytics to prove the point. I see it each year: if you don’t do your homework and you don’t take advantage of test corrections, you will fail a class. It’s generally the story. If our children learn to be faithful with the little things, success takes care of itself, even in hard things.
- Has your mom or dad logged your homework time? A teacher and administrator are unable to help a student if all we hear is, “They are spending too much time on homework.” There is more to the story. How much time? Which subjects? Every night? Are they doing their homework in the kitchen? With the dog? As siblings run by? With their phone next to them? And their headphones on? Trying to balance their bowl of nachos on their head? What are their other commitments? The families commitments? Yes, I’m sure it is taking them all afternoon. Parents need to get some clear data points to bring to a teacher meeting. Take two weeks and log what the student works on and how long it takes. Watch closely, and then bring that to the teacher and administrator. That way, the teacher knows what to assess and where to begin helping.
- Have you asked your classmate for help? A child’s struggle may need help, and that struggle may be there so that they learn to humble themselves and ask for help. Have they?
- Have you asked your instructor for help? Have you really? Real help? Sit-down help or just a passing breath after class, “Hey, um I could use some help one day.” Our instructors at Sequitur are committed to their subjects and their students. It’s a delight to see and it’s humbling to lead. The vast majority of meetings I’ve had with struggling students end abruptly when they say they have not asked their instructor for help, or it ends abruptly when the instructor shares with me that the student doesn’t pay enough attention during class. This then is where the student must learn that the work is their work; not mine, not the instructor’s, and not their parent's. If the student is unwilling to seek help, they will learn the hard way those around them will not be able to give what has not been asked of them.
- Are you prioritizing your successes? On the rare occasion a student is struggling in several classes, it’s good to sit down with the child and ask them what success looks like in their various classes. I have before advised a student to miss an assignment in one class to ensure they don’t miss an assignment in another. This is what it means to be an adult: you can’t do all the things you love with equal success and equal energy. You must prioritize, and you must be shrewd enough to know that a chosen failure in one area means greater success in another. I don’t get as much sleep as I used to and I don’t work out like I should. I’m failing in that area. Our landscape in our front yard is pretty hideous. We are failing in that area. But, oh, you should meet our children. And you should come visit Sequitur, the people and places into which I’m pouring my time and energy. I’ll take a dad physique and pitiful landscape any day if it means the flowers in my little daughters’ hearts are blooming with divine radiance.
- Are you being realistic about your expectations for success? It’s one thing to prioritize one’s successes, yet it’s another to be realistic about them. Students sometimes struggle with struggling because they are comparing themselves to their peer, who is (apparently) not struggling. A child ought to make sure they have realistic expectations for what success is in every class, and parents must lead this conversation, reward and discipline appropriately, and not confuse the two. The world misses this so badly, and we as parents are indeed not doing enough to change the standard of success for our children. They will continue to struggle with struggling.
- Are you considering what you will do one day when your job, marriage, and children are all together much harder than this academy? A student often sees their struggle with short-sightedness. They do not see that it is intended to prepare them for the “real game.” This is what sprints were all about in sports. We would throw up. We would complete the drill half-way in the Alabama summer heat. We would not finish the last rep, because it was a struggle. And then the lights came on, and the field was ready, and we weren’t, because we avoided the struggle. And the game was harder, so much harder than the workout.
- Are you thanking God that you can struggle at a good thing with people who love you? Going from the first point, we ought not let a student’s struggle become the loudest voice, for it is not the most defining thing about them. Again, a good struggle occurs when God heaps blessings upon blessings. Children are a blessing; they are a struggle. Marriage is a blessing; it is a struggle. Running a school is a blessing; it is a struggle. I was once told that true biblical masculinity is not just doing the work, but doing the work with gratitude. It is one thing for a father to come home, having done the work, only to toss his shoes aside and gripe about how much work he had to do to fund the family. It is quite another thing for him to carry the burden with joy and gratitude.
- Did you know Christmas break is coming soon? Struggles are momentary. This is what’s great about not giving up on a struggle. They are for a season, and that season, especially for Christians, is important in living a good life. It’s also important we know that the season will indeed end, that we can commit and put our nose to the grind because the curtain will fall. The vast majority of feedback about students struggling, either from parents, teachers, or students, comes mid October, and that is because of a few reasons: the students haven't figured out their work habits for the year, the classes are getting harder than last year, and it's the longest stretch of the year without a break. So, it appears, everyone begins to focus on the struggle, along with the student. Students think too much of the immediate, and so they do not pick their heads up to look beyond, to see that the immediate will become something else. We ought to remind our students of this reality. Work while you indeed can work, and then see how the chips fall. Take a break. Rejoice. And then consider how you may be better at your work in the spring.
In a meeting recently, some parents asked me if they should be concerned that their student is struggling. I asked “Why would this concern you? Shouldn’t it make you proud?” I then shared that a student who doesn’t struggle is often times more of a concern to me than one who does. Sequitur has students who struggle and students who skim by. Some of those who skim by have natural abilities, and so they lean on those, they bolster their pride, and they will learn later that they did not learn well enough those virtues which are more important than natural genius. I would take a school of strugglers over a school of skimmers, any day of the week. The strugglers will eventually catch up, and they will have grown in some very important virtues. The skimmers will get lazy, and they will fall out of the race, whatever race God calls them to.
Our American culture is a soft culture. We indeed do not understand the full implications of this. We are a comfortable culture, and we are a young nation that has, at least comparatively, had to struggle very little to be where we are. We could even say that any of the struggles our forefathers went through we have long since forgotten, because we don’t converse with them anymore. Not only is this true, but there is a growing swell of entitlement among our citizens, and this is especially true of our children. Things are not very hard today, and so we think school ought to be the same way. But we are wrong, and when we take the beauty and joy of a good struggle away from our children, we take away their humanity. We go to extremes in our schools today to make sure our students don't feel the weight of responsibility, the weight of their humanity, the weight of adulthood. What we do not realize, however, is that by doing this we steal from them the weight which Christ ultimately bore, the weight of glory. Classical Christian education is about that gravitas, that weight which will strengthen their legs and cause them to stand upright like men.
For more on this topic, see my previous essay at Circe Institute titled, “Conquering Lions and Bears.”