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Just How Important Is Excellence?

866529_feedback_form_excellentI love competition. I thrive on competition. I love being able to get a group of kids to create a powerfully musical performance. These are tremendous things. But I have come to realize that this is not the most important thing we can do.

If we lose sight of why we are in education and focus solely on winning (having the most kids pass TAKS, getting more kids in the all region choir, having an undefeated volleyball season, or whatever), we miss out on an opportunity for some of the greatest education we can provide.

As a band director, I struggle to ensure that my pursuit of musical excellence does not overtake my desire to provide a high quality education for my students. It seems to me that I must reevaluate my teaching methods from time to time.

As a competitor, I naturally want to win. As a result, sometimes I step on toes in the pursuit of the goal. I may upset other teachers or parents or even students because I know what must happen, and don’t want to stop until I have done everything I believe needs to be done to allow us to get to that place.

But what does that teach the students?
Sometimes, I stop and think about the message that sends to the students. It tells them that I have an agenda and want to get it done. But I think it also tells them that I am selfish, and that I think my goals are more important than their feelings. I assume it sends similar messages to teachers and parents.

Administrators and supervisors like results, but it is too easy for me to allow the quest for results to overtake me. I need to be nicer. I need to be more considerate.

We have a Christmas Concert this Thursday. The band is not ready. But they are ready enough. I need to relax and have fun with it, while still making as much progress as possible.

How often do you find yourself having to step back and refocus? Do you think that’s often enough?

Joel Wagner
Joel Wagner (<strong><a href="">@sywtt</a></strong>) began teaching band in 2002. Though he had a lot of information, his classes were out of control. He found himself tired, frustrated, disrespected by students, lonely, and on the brink of quitting. He had had enough. He resigned from his school district right before spring break of his second year and made it his personal mission to learn to be a great teacher. <strong><a href="">So You Want To Teach?</a></strong> is the ongoing story of that quest for educational excellence.

11 thoughts on “Just How Important Is Excellence?

  1. I’m not afraid of injecting some competition into my 4th grade class. Striving for excellence IS important, and when we have those high expectations (within reason, of course)our students reach toward them. Some will get there, some will get close, some will continue to “reach”… and that’s OK. Becoming better, it’s in the reaching, or in the wanting to.

    What I won’t do, is make performance on standardized tests a mark of excellence, and as a result have it be a positive but warped reflection of my administrator. It’s not my job to make her look good. My job is to help my kids look good, real good, and they do. Despite so many factors – poverty, language, difficult home lives – they are working toward goals.

    And as teachers, we ought to strive for excellence. Those that don’t may just be the ones that don’t believe excellence can happen. I suppose I may get over zealous at times, but it’s for them. I believe in them.

  2. Competition is a real world skill – it’s something we should all learn how to do, how to deal with it, how to handle it. Winning is not a real world skill. Winning is a treadmill to nowhere, because no one wins every day. It’s not possible.

    The balance between teaching competition skills and the need to win is a tricky one. If you find it, you’ll have given your students something really great.

  3. Thank you for this post. I teach theatre arts and I know exactly what you are saying. I know that sometimes I become so focused on getting the results I want that I forget that I am dealing with young students who are trying to balance numerous activities all at once. Your post reminds me that we are here to teach our students and the times when they don’t win can be great teaching times.

    I hope I can remember this as I gear up for One Act Play season after the holidays!!

  4. Clix: As I see it, competition is a pursuit to be the best in the world (or the city, or the school, or the class, or whatever). I take competition to be more than merely trying to beat someone else. I compete with myself in certain situations.

    Maybe I am confusing myself a little bit. Maybe competition is healthy when the goal is to be great rather than the goal to be better than someone else.

    In the Texas Band world, we go to UIL contests and we perform for a rating. If every band there has a superior performance in the eyes of the judges, then every band there receives a first division rating. It is not head-to-head competition, but it is definitely competition. Against a standard that has been established by the UIL.

    What if I don’t aim for that? What if I aim to get my students to have the best possible performance they can have? That’s a pursuit of excellence, without a competitive undertone.

    My problem seems to be that my pursuit of excellence tends to get in the way of my pursuit of respecting the students who are not working hard. Maybe that’s a better way of phrasing it?

  5. A very timely post and right on point. With the continuing interference by career politicians in the business of qualified educators, most recently via No Child Left Behind, “results” from the teacher’s perspective needs to be modified. As teachers we are given a very brief window of opportunity to be a positive influence in the life of a young person. It would be nothing less than a shame if this opportunity was lost due to focus on teacher based outcomes rather than student improvement, however defined.

  6. Joel: “I compete with myself in certain situations.”

    As a life long competitive athlete and habitual over-achiever I assure you that we are always competing with ourselves. The opponent, other team, what have you, are merely a vehicle as in the end it all resolves down to how we as individuals performed and that means competition with Self. People project far too much importance on “the competition” and that interferes with the “Inner Game” which is where our true greatness is to be found.

  7. Hi Joel. This is precisely what I’ve been thinking about having performed the Winter Concert at one of my schools. I think I’ve been so focused on excellence and high standards and expectations that I may have burned out some of my students. Although I don’t think “fun” is the most important aspect of music classes, I probably haven’t made the experience as enjoyable as it should be. (Pardon the self-promotion, but I’ve got several blog posts on this topic in the works. Stay tuned!)

  8. Wow, as I reread this, I realize that I have not seen the distinction between competitions and contests. Musical excellence is a great goal, but it does not have to be at the expense of others.

    I’m doing pass-offs with my band as I prepare for UIL. It encourages a pursuit of excellence (and a little bit of friendly competition) without encouraging competitiveness. I’ll write more about this soon.

    I think Clix was onto something that I just totally missed until recently!

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