On Not Being the Smartest Person in the Room

Dear Teachers,

Growing up, I was usually among the “smart kids” in my classes. Learning (or at least, getting good grades) came easily to me all the way through elementary school. And then I hit 8th grade, and Algebra. I just couldn’t get it; it made no sense whatsoever to me, and back then there was no such thing as “promoting a growth mindset.” I just knew that for the first time in my life, something was hard, and I had to work at it. I assumed that all the other information I had gathered about myself as a good student was simply wrong, and that I must be “bad at math.” Grades in my other classes slipped as well, and so I began to experiment with a new identity: that of Not That Great a Student. I wasn’t exactly comfortable in that persona but with no one telling me otherwise, I tried it out for a while to see how it fit. I didn’t much like it, and have always regretted that slide in my grades and my reputation.

But I fortified my self-identity as being among the smartest when I was in college, somehow mostly skirting those pesky math classes and focusing on the word-y ones. Same in both grad school experiences; if not THE smartest person, I was at least always way above average, and enjoyed knowing that I was a leader.

I’ve been thinking about my history as a student because of a tweet. This was the first thing I saw on Twitter when I was scrolling through my phone this morning:

Michelle Joyce (@AwesomeScience), replying to Mari Venturino (@MsVenturino), in a tweet dated April 5, 2017)

I work with amazingly smart people who challenge me every day. We encourage each other, tease each other relentlessly, cover for each other, make each other laugh all day long, and learn from each other.  We lift each other up and are individually better for being a part of the team. Far from being the smartest person on the team, I am most definitely in the right room. Shoutout to Clara, Fern, and Leah here: you make me look forward to coming to work every day. Thank you.

And now I’m part of another room where I’m MOST DEFINITELY NOT the smartest person: my Google Innovator tribe. Since the announcement a few weeks ago about the 36 of us who will be meeting in London in a couple of weeks, we have been getting to know each other online. I am humbled and honored already to be a part of the Innovator program and this particular group. We are from eleven different countries; everyone has amazing ideas about how to improve education in their part of the world and beyond. We’ve never met, but we have already bonded, not only as professional connections and colleagues but also, it seems, as true friends. We can’t wait to meet each other in person and learn even more from one another as we all advance our own innovation dreams.

What is the “-est” in your room that catches your attention and your heart? Is it to be the smartest? The kindest? The most intuitive? The most compassionate? The most analytical? The bravest? Everyone has some superlative to aspire to. You probably have several, or you likely wouldn’t be in this profession.

And remember the kids: that kid who is Not the Smartest Person in the Room needs you; so does the one who is. You’ve got this. You can make it through these last few weeks of school – and not just make it through, but make it GREAT.  Because whether you believe it or not at this stressful time of year, you probably ARE the smartest – or the kindest, or the gentlest, or the bravest – person in whatever room you find yourself today.





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