Measuring Success, One Story At a Time

Image by Arek Socha from Pixabay

Before retiring a few years ago, I taught high school chemistry for over 30 years. One of my duties was organizing and carrying out our school’s science fair. I shepherded between 70 and 100 students through their individual research projects each year.

I don’t remember the projects as much as the kids who accomplished them.

One young woman, I’ll call her Beth, completed a project about stress and how to ameliorate it.

Even before I had Beth in class, I recognized her from running past her house on one of my regular routes.

Beth lived in a run-down dwelling that sat squarely in the flood plain of a small creek. After every heavy rain, a sump pump emptied water from the basement of her house into the street.

Beth’s dad would often be sitting shirtless on his cluttered front porch, drinking a beer even if I ran past their house first thing in the morning. Or in the afternoon. Or evening.

Her mom drove a battered mini-van and wore abundant makeup. Half a dozen young children in various stages of disarray followed her around. She was loud but friendly, often greeting me as I ran by. 

Beth was not in a top-level science class, but she was determined to do a project, and I was determined to help her. Our school made a deal with science fair students: win an award at the regional science fair, and your final exam in science is optional.

Mrs. Hess,” she confided, “I have to win an award at the science fair. There is no way I will pass the chemistry final exam.

I was concerned that she was correct. Beth was a responsible student, always turning her work in on time and coming in for extra help when needed. Chemistry, however, was not her strong suit. She was passionate about art.

To win an award at the regional science fair, students needed to submit a top-notch project. The competition was fierce. I was skeptical about Beth’s ability to pull it off.

She had done a good job on a project based on a simple concept. She understood her project and could easily talk about it, which was in her favor. She was competing against projects far more sophisticated than hers, however.

Before the fair, I coached her. “Beth, use your artistic talents to make your board stand out. Do everything that you can to draw attention to your display.

I advised her to focus on talking to the auxiliary award judges. Several local organizations sponsored awards. I thought that was her best bet to score a prize, rather than trying to win one of the categories such as Behavioral Science or Health and Medicine.

On the day of the science fair, Beth showed me her display board. It was magnificent. A cardboard woman who appeared to be extremely stressed rose from behind the trifold, her curly hair shimmering. Electric lights illuminated individual sections of the display, and large arrows directed viewers’ attention to lab highlights. The board could not have been more eye-catching.

Image by AxxLC from Pixabay

At the award ceremony, Beth (and I) sat with bated breath as they announced the auxiliary awards. When Beth’s name was called and she stood to walk to the stage and accept her prize, her mom whooped with joy. I tried to give her a high-five, but Beth enveloped me in a bear hug.

She had done it.


We love success stories, and Beth’s was a heart-warmer.

But how do we define success? And is the constant striving for success beneficial?

I taught many students who completed exceptional projects and learned a lot of science in the process but won no awards. They were also successful.

In education, teachers are counseled to look for evidence-based outcomes of learning. Administrators want to know that what is happening in the classroom works. Science fair awards are high-profile accolades that attract good publicity.

But I didn’t teach outcomes. I taught kids.

Sometimes important learning takes place that is not easily measured.

How do we quantify the development of self-confidence? How can we assess learning to break a huge project into smaller, manageable slices to accomplish it? How do we assign a number to the evolution of trust, the ability to overcome obstacles, or the appreciation of the importance of hard work?

Education often happens in a three-steps-forward-two-steps-back kind of way.

As Father Gregory Boyle says, “Embracing a strategy and an approach you can believe in is sometimes the best you can do on any given day.” Father Boyle is a priest who works with gang members in Los Angeles.

Success comes in many forms. Some are so quiet we may miss them if we focus solely on the flashy medals and trophies awarded by external judges.

Sometimes success comes from the simple act of being true to ourselves. Sometimes we are successful if we maintain our hope and faith in a tumultuous, fractious world. Sometimes success looks a lot like compassion or love.

Don’t get me wrong, success stories can inspire and encourage us. We all need a rousing success story now and then. They are good for morale.

But we all would do well to consider the words of Mother Teresa on the topic of success: “We are not called to be successful but faithful.

You can find the places I link up here.





  1. This. ❤️ it made me cry happy tears. I would have loved working with you. And Beth was fortunate to have your encouragement and wisdom. Success indeed. Happy Resurrection Day my friend. ❤️

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you so much. I am glad the post spoke to you. I was fortunate to have met Beth and other students like her. I learned a lot from them, including the meaning of success. Hope you had a wonderful Easter!

      Liked by 1 person

      • You’re so welcome, my friend! I understand completely about Beth. Me too. I learned so much more from them then probably what they learned from me. ❤️💛💚

        Liked by 1 person

  2. As a former Special Education teacher for students with “Behavioral Difficulties”, you know the ones no one else wants in their classroom, this story made me smile and brought back more than a few memories. You can’t change the world, but for the time you have a kiddo in your classroom you can make a small difference in that child’s life and outlook on life. Thank you for reminding me of the “small” wins that we made once upon a time.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Great post. I’m glad Beth won a prize after all of her hard work. I wish society would do a better job at measuring success based on how we live our lives and not by how much money we make or how many toys we have…which seems to be the ultimate measure. By the time most people figure out that those things really don’t matter, it’s too late for them.

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  4. I always wondered how teachers remembered their many students, Laurie. I can see how Beth was a memorable student. Inspirational especially with all of her personal challenges. Other projects more sophisticated….using her artistic talents…..Beth was fortunate to have you believe in her.❤️ Tears brimming reading this. As you say, teaching kids, not outcomes. Thank you for sharing a heartwarming story.❤️

    Liked by 2 people

  5. true confidence comes from trying hard to overcome and doing it. I love the last quote so much On another note, having survived a childhood filled with parental alcoholism and abuse, I feel our girl turned into a strong woman who strives to do her best with what she has. Some kids might have given up, dropped out, not tried. She worked hard, and that’s the best employee IMHO

    Liked by 2 people

    • Oh, Lee Anna, I am so sorry to read about your childhood. I feel the same as you. Confidence does come from overcoming difficult circumstances.


  6. Beth’s story made me misty — I’ve known a few Beths in my time in education, students who had to swim upstream against obstacles that were not of their own making, but who faithfully kept going. Kids like her humble me, and their successes, however externally modest, always seemed to me worth more than the big-splash wins of students who had everything working in their favor. Great post, Laurie.

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  7. I agree that success comes in many forms. I try to tell my readers that when losing weight, you need to focus on more than just the scale. The scale isn’t enough to keep you going when your willpower dwindles.

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  8. What a wonderful story! Good for Beth and how rewarding for you as a teacher to see students succeed like that. You’re right though, in that success can be a different thing to different people. To me at the moment success would be a simple thing of feeling happiness and peace within myself and seeing my kids independent and happy. Hope you have a wonderful week!

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, Min. I would consider feeling happy and at peace and seeing my kids happy as a success too. Work in progress! You have a wonderful week also.


  9. Hi Laurie – I loved Beth’s story – it’s always good to hear about kids that make an effort and achieve great results. I also like the idea that success isn’t all about bells, whistles, and being the queen of everything – it can be a quiet satisfaction in doing things well, contributing to those around us, living a life that encourages others, and just being the person we were created to be. I get so tired of the “influencers” and the busy bees – in your face success might be great for some, but give me a quiet achiever any day 🙂

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  10. I loved reading Beth’s story – both her determination to succeed and how you encouraged and helped her along the way. And I agree, success is not always visible or obvious. It shouldn’t be all about the outcome, especially where God is concerned. The focus on faithfulness instead of success is something I’ve been thinking about a lot.

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  11. Laurie,
    I thought I had to have a published book to be successfull, but God is teaching me what you so beautifully outlined in this post. God calls us to be faithful, not successful. Perhaps simple faith and obedience is the very definition of success? Loved this post!
    Bev xx

    Liked by 3 people

    • Oh, Bev. Faith and obedience is definitely the definition of success. You succeed in touching your many readers every week through your blog. Blessings.


  12. How very true – success comes in many shapes and forms, but it sounds like this girl truly enjoyed hers. Sometimes it’s important to pick what we strive for too as that’s helps determine success. Christine

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  13. Thank you so much for this reminder! Beth’s story is so inspiring. I also agree that success isn’t always being at the top of your class. I, for one, was an above-average student in my high level high school. That didn’t give me joy or satisfaction. Now, being unemployable due to multiple disabilities and in long-term care, blogging does give me satisfaction and joy. #SeniSal

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  14. I like the story and your conclusion about what success really is. I consider success to be doing what you can in the best way that you can, then shutting up about it. Being famous isn’t being a success, being effective is being a success.

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  15. I’m glad Beth won the award! But you’re right that we can’t always measure success on outward trophies. Sometimes just knowing we tried is success enough. That’s what I’ve been telling myself the past 12 months. 🙂

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  16. So good. Often our success looks differently than the measurable checkpoints others are using. And maybe even we are using on ourselves. God definitely measures our success differently than we do.

    Yesterday I was running errands and listening to an audio book which was talking about how we often have the wrong goals. He gave the example of a woman having the goal of a well-behaved family and a clean house. That goal will lead to her to feel like a failure, he said. Because the five children will not have the same goal. And they will daily misbehave and trash the house (something she has no control over). He said, a better goal would be to be the mother God wants her to be (something she can control – herself). He said the well-behaved children and clean house are more of a desire. Anyway, I am mulling over his advice.

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    • Thank you, Theresa. I agree – God measures success differently than we do. I love the example you give here. I wish I had read this when my own children were younger. I was the mom who wanted well-behaved children and a clean house!

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  17. Laurie, Thank you for the reminder that education journey is often experienced in circular motion rather than simple, linear one. I work in education field, and the whole trend towards practical, outcome-based (even whole-person) education sometimes made me think that some character side of education was forgotten. Faithfulness!

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Laurie, thank you as I needed to read these words this morning: “Sometimes success comes from the simple act of being true to ourselves” and “We are not called to be successful but faithful.” Being faithful to His leading means making hard decisions and obeying His direction. Not always easy but does lead to success. I so appreciated your thoughts this morning!

    Liked by 1 person

  19. Thank you, Laurie for sharing this inspiring story and the lesson on true success. You know Beth’s story reminds me that in God’s Kingdom we are to use the talents He gives us, even when it sometimes doesn’t make sense. Just as Beth used her artistic talent for a science project, which may not have made sense at first. It goes right along with Mother Theresa’s quote, “We are not called to be successful but faithful.” I would add, “with what God gives us to do”.

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  20. Loved hearing Beth’s story! And I agree so much that success comes in many forms. Sometimes just surviving is success. And sometimes I have learned lots even from failure–which I guess makes it a success. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  21. What a beautiful, inspiring story! Of course, the art aspect of it got my attention rapidly 😉 Did you ever hear back from Beth after she graduated?

    Liked by 1 person

  22. What a wonderful success story! I have tried to teach my boys through the years that there are so many different kinds and measures of success but I’m not so sure I got through to them all with Alec’s drive to get straight A’s in all his classes. LOL.

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  23. Love that line, I teach students not outcomes. I am glad in many ways to have been a teacher and progress through my efforts to become a principal but I am also glad not to be in classrooms and schools now. I do agree we need to have goals and objectives but to lose sight of one child…just one, which you did not, would be a great disservice to her as a person.

    Always delighted to see your posts in Life This Week Link up. Thanks for joining in. Looking forward to next week, when we may, should we choose, Share Our Snaps (photos!). Denyse.

    Liked by 1 person

    • As an educator, I am sure you can appreciate that sentiment, Denyse. I am also glad to not be in schools now. All of my former colleagues tell me I would not want to be teaching this year with all of the online classes. Thank you for hosting. Hope to see you next week!

      Liked by 1 person

  24. Loved reading that. I lectured previously disadvantaged adults for a while and it was one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. It does as much for you as it does for them. My biggest take away – empathy, courage and persistence ❤️

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wow! That must have been a tough but rewarding job. I learned the same lessons from teaching teenagers – empathy, courage, and persistence. Good lessons to learn.


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