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Last week, I was asked to define what excellence meant in my classroom for the Friends of Pulteney Arts-Focus Evening. This is a snapshot of my notes.
Not only bringing forth musical and academic excellence, but developing personal character, courage, persistence in the face of challenge, embracing the joy of learning joy, life-long learning, and my being able to glimpse a uniquely personal side of the students in my classes. If I have tapped into any combination of those facets of learning, I am teaching according to my values, and what I hope to develop in my students.
I have my own version of excellence, but sometimes my version of excellence is defined by totally different things, for example, the unique challenges of the child, their areas of development, and what they are capable of socially, and intellectually.
I have regularly gotten more excited about a choir having the courage to sing in front of their peers than necessarily how perfectly balanced the parts are, or perhaps their determination + persistence with a well-defined challenge, rather than choosing easier repertoire to ensure they remain easy + comfortable. As a result, I look at excellence through many difference lenses, and wearing many different hats. My teaching compass will always be embedded in academic excellence. But then there’s the excellence of nurturing a whole student, responsive and attuned to the world around them, creative, playful, and able to navigate abstract ideas + sounds, and to interpret them…I believe that is excellence in my field.
I have a focus upon play and creativity, as it connects so closely with innovation, and the ability to adapt to a changing world. When I see courage come forth from a student, that is oftentimes just as important as the right answer, and sometime even more important.
Excellence is not one-size-fits-all; it stretches and shifts according to the student, the class, and that exact point in time. I’ve experienced both ends of the continuum; I’ve had people looking in on my Senior Concert Band rehearsals and telling me how wonderful they sound, and I’ll be thinking about how much more they can push themselves against their own personal markers. Conversely, I’ve had others comment on how “rustic” my tenors and basses are sounding, and I’ll be jumping around completely and utterly excited about the FIVE WHOLE NOTES that they just managed to sing in UNISON! Whatever the marker is, I know I have it right when I call it correctly, and my students know that I know, where their exact point in development is.
All of this takes time, and this leads me to my most important message for tonight. It takes time for students to learn their craft, to learn about themselves as learners, to struggle, to fail, to figure out solutions, and to try again. Consequently, it is so very vital for me to share with you the infinite little details that are lovingly and consistently nurtured over a term, and that the 8-10 minutes of polished performance that you hear is the sum of so many playful moments, struggles, and frustrations that have been worked through. When you hear the Senior Concert Band performing a polished work, that is many weeks of regular + carefully supported rehearsal, listening, repetition, and exploration of the different sections of the piece within rehearsal. I’m also keenly aware of personal opportunities such as developing section leaders, teaching students how to plan and negotiate rehearsals, and time for mentoring + social connection.
It is a daily, sometimes hourly, balancing act, but when the combination is correct, what happens is truly wonderful. Students stand their ground securely, and they present + share their talents openly, with confidence in their abilities, and a genuine joy of learning. They develop personally in ways that go far beyond performing, including the ability to negotiate struggle, to problem-solve, and to develop strong + lasting friendships. In sharing what I see every day in the classroom, I hope that I may connect the polished performance you all see with the daily steps and success necessary to get to that final stage. And it’s with complete honesty that I can say that I find these smaller moments of learning just as rewarding as the final product.