What does it mean to be the smart kid? My time at Oxford has taught me it doesn’t mean what I always thought it did.

Well, it’s done. I finished my reading, wrote a few papers, and received my participant’s certificate. My summer as a student at the University of Oxford will soon be a fond memory. 

Thank goodness it isn’t as simple as that.

See, I thought this trip was going to be about Jessica the teacher, but it turns out it was about Jessica the person too.

I have always been a strong student. As a child, I had a compulsive need to follow rules (oldest child syndrome, I think), but I also thrived on the compliments and positive reinforcement of my teachers and other adults in my life. I liked being known as a smart kid. I liked it so much that I have spent most of my life building habits and pursuing hobbies that reinforce this character trait.

One would think that getting accepted to the University of Oxford, even if just to the department of continuing education, would have been a nice resume builder for my smart kid vitae. I sure did in March, April, May, and June as I prepared for my trip.

But then I got here and realized that being smart is so much more than I thought it was. Surrounded by incredibly gifted people all the time, I began to doubt myself. A lot. And that was scary. I struggled as a key aspect of my identity was thrown into question.

I spent quite a few nights wandering the medieval streets of the city center reflecting on my insecurities. As I walked down the same alleyways that two of my favorite authors, J.R.R. Tolkien, and C.S. Lewis walked, I thought about what it really means to be smart.

Tolkien and Lewis were unquestionably intelligent. Not only were they prolific narrative writers, both received firsts in their undergraduate studies and went on to be fellows and instructors at Oxford. Most importantly, though, both men were life-long learners. They not only engaged in academic study, they engaged in personal inquiry and found great benefit from participating in regular discussion of ideas.

For them, being smart wasn’t about their pedigree or accomplishments. Being smart was about learning. Intelligence showed itself in the skills and desires that drove them to continue pursuing new ideas throughout their lives.

Over the course of the past three weeks, I have been a learner in every sense of the word. I’ve had to learn how to live in a dorm again. I’ve had to learn how to be a student again. When I found myself behind on my course-work, I had to learn how to motivate myself to stay up until my papers were written.

Every day, over meals, I engaged in discussion with the students from my program and learned about so many things: politics in the European Union, Anglo-Saxon literary patterns, voting practices in Australia, university entrance requirements in India, teaching concerns in various states in the U.S., etc.

Finally, I learned that the version of myself that I have come to rely on isn’t as firm as I thought it was. As hard as that was to realize, I think it is probably the most important thing that I will take away from my time here, both as an educator and as a person.

When I was in my most insecure places, I was tempted to give up. After all, if I didn’t complete the work, I wouldn’t risk being criticized. How many times have my students done the same thing? And how have I responded?

When I got my papers back for my courses, I had the pleasure of a one on one conference with each instructor. Both of my tutors are masters of their field, but their feedback on my papers focused on my ideas and the way I crafted my argument rather than pointing out all the things I didn’t know. They celebrated my ability to analyze a set of texts and synthesize my thinking into my own interpretation. They offered ideas about other critics I could read to expand my understanding, but also complimented the ways that I chose to engage with the ideas.

Their encouragement helped me to celebrate my learning process and inspired me to continue with more depth and along new avenues. They never doubted my abilities and celebrated the risks I took.

As I prepare to leave England and begin the fast-approaching 2015/16 school year, I wonder how I can carry this learning forward, both personally and professionally.

For one thing, I have already started to research Oxford’s online continuing education programs. More importantly, though, I will use the waning days of summer to brainstorm ways I can share my experiences here to help my students towards intellectual risk taking. Hopefully, if I can share my own vulnerabilities, we can have a great year of learning together how to embrace our identities as smart kids.

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