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Today was one of those days where I was right IN the whole problem-solving, behaviour management, motivating, and beating kids back into shape. I knew it was coming, and I knew this week would be the week for Grammarphones, Senior Concert Band, and my senior kiddies. The week where I would hunt them all down and have The Conversation, in whatever incarnation was required.
I hate it and love it. They see and hear the care from me, but also the fire in the belly for excellence, for them and myself, in EVERY capacity. Not just academically, but personally. I want the complete package: great people who strive for their best. 🌟
Even though I KNOW that I have done the best that I can, I can’t help but replay conversations, and wonder if I have done enough, and with the right words + weight.
And when it’s Music kiddies it becomes all the more connected and personal because of what they give to you on a daily basis. The conversations inevitably become even more emotionally-charged because you love your kiddies + because of the relationship you have with them. 💛
But I got one tiny little gem back today; walking out of the Music Centre into the Centre for Senior Learning, newly beat-up Sir Year 11 went one way and I went the other.
But not far enough that I couldn’t hear this:
Sir Year 11: “Hey, where were you? We’ve been waiting for ages!”
Mangled Sir Year 11: “Ms Kwok wanted speak with me about Grammarphones. She was disappointed in me.”
Sir Year 11: “Oh shit.”
We did a professional development as a whole staff recently where we were asked to name, in a sentence, what sparks our passion as people. Not as teachers, but as people. And found myself saying immediately, without thought or preparation:
“If ‘excellent’ is the highest pinnacle, like the North Star, or the top of a mountain, then I am determined to find a way to get there with my students without shame. I will not hold any of their personal attributes or actions against their inherent value, or allow that to colour their pathway to achieving excellence. But I WANT excellence. That’s unmistakable. It’s in the blood. I just think that you can do it joyfully, with a love of learning the whole way. It can be honest, gritty, no-frills, and monotonous, but it will not cut or hurt them personally.”
So my spark of passion in one sentence is this:
I want to bring the students under my direction to their best selves in an envelope of joy and worthiness.
I’m an example in my words, in how I am as a person, in how I recover, in how I deal with stress, in the challenges I choose to accept, in how I love and care for myself and the people important to me, and even in how I interact with the people I do not like or respect.
You can get to “excellent” by squeezing it out of a kid, by threatening them, by coercing them, by holding academic barriers over them, by comparing them to others, by pitting them against your own self-worth, by unwittingly emotionally cornering them into doing what you want. You know what? It all produces the same result of excellent. How twisted is that?! I hate that. But there it is. I will actually get you the result that you want. I’ve seen it happen.
But THAT version of excellent, forged from a foundation of shame – and that IS what it all is, shame packaged in various forms – doesn’t eff-ing fly. It doesn’t stick, it’s not life-long. And students will fight it the way their bodies fight disease; instinctively.
And why would you want to connect that with excellence and their self-worth?
Teachers, check your words + intent carefully. I have to on a daily basis.
And find another way.
I will find the only other way to “excellent” that doesn’t involve shame, even if I have to find the goddamn scenic route that takes twice as long.
Because that’s my spark.
I am on the kind side of “fair”, with a slightly competitive edge for “excellent”. I know this of myself and my teaching.
So it actually warms my heart to hear the following:
Sir Year 12 to Sir Year 11:
“Yeah, don’t be fooled. She’s like a tiny, deadly colourful little Disney ninja who can kick your arse. Seriously, just do whatever she’s asked you to do.”
Wise, my little grasshopper.
I have been watching outstanding educators and choral directors from all over Australia this week, inspiring hundreds of young people to a level of musical and personal excellence that has made my heart burst. These young people come from such different backgrounds, unified through a shared passion for singing. These young people have produced affecting, heartfelt, magnificent, perfectly detailed, truly outstanding performances. They have stepped on stage with a sense of self-worth, and a message to share. They have stood their sacred ground and affected time and space around them and in doing so, affected us, the listeners, in ways magical and unexpected. It’s been a weekend of defining, over and over, what it’s like to be human and joyfully alive!
And I have come to realise, unequivocally, all over again, that LOVE is what produces this excellence.
And ONLY love.
That this most positive source of momentum and motivation of young minds MUST come from a place of love, and that ONLY love can distill such pure passion and this particular brand excellence. A healthy striving. A healthy excellence.
This LOVE is disciplined and hard-arse. It can be quietly contained, and brief, depending on the mentor.
But it is NEVER, EVER derogatory, rude, or disrespectful.
Every chorister, whatever their unique set of strengths and weaknesses, personal or musical, is DEEPLY SEEN, HEARD, and VALUED, that their potential is maximised through persistent and tenacious growth, from a secure and safe foundation. THIS NEVER WAVERS OR CHANGES.
This LOVE can be playful, with the unique spark and joy between choristers, and their director. These playful moments are built through experience, a shared story, and TRUST. Only time and a sense of humour can produce this delightful connection.
This LOVE can be boring and monotonous. Choristers will not find each other eternally interesting, and the choral directors certainly won’t! But this love is founded through tolerance and care, and a quiet patience that walks, one step at a time, through the development and growing process. There are no cheap thrills, and a total guarantee for monotonous and very ordinary days of hard work.
This LOVE is shared through choral excellence. Each crystalline detail is refined and polished to that magical place of excellence not through fear, but through a high-held mutual respect for the music. And that respect for the composers’ words can only be embedded THAT DEEPLY by love. And that commitment to telling the story on stage, and the heat that comes off a performance which is unprecedented can ONLY be produced by this brand of love.
Why do I say this?
I have been forced out of my comfort zone this year.
I have been asked to consider the role of overt, un-earned discipline and flippancy, power, and shame. And you know what? I asked myself to be open-minded. And sure, I see that these all produce immediate results.
But they are not HEALTHY, LASTING, or EFFECTIVE. These are quick-fixes, and unbelievably damaging ones at that. Ones that take away years of confidence, joy, and motivation, and create an atmosphere of doubt and instability. Reversing that? Infinitely harder.
To create life-long, self-motivated, embedded results is truly a labour of love. Any educator and mentor who doesn’t want to be in it for the long haul, or have the tolerance to care for the needs of different young people should examine why they are here, entrusted with so much potential.
So I am going to stand against the tide for this one, backed so strongly by what I have experienced this week. Inspired by more people and wisdom than I can number, pulled to this point by the sheer force of what I have seen over and over these last few days.
Learning must be motivated by a unique respect and love.
There is NO QUESTION for me.
Yesterday morning, I’d never heard of these two wonderful musicians. But this video popped up on my Facebook newsfeed and made me grin + light up in a way far more than their playful duo recording attempt was ever intended.
Seth Allyn Morris and Ben Smolen are both professional musicians with impressive portfolios, at the start of their careers, having established themselves as outstanding flautists in their own right. Yet in this recording, they put their professional selves on the shelf, and are just totally engaged in being playful…”I wonder if we could do this?!”
The humility + playfulness in their banter belies the obvious hard work + grit both have shown to get to their respective points in their careers. There’s no elitism, they are relying upon each other, and having a great time…being silly…in a creative, intellectual, and playful manner.
They’re not in their own little glasshouses, they are not precious or overprotective with their talents…they’re just having fun.
And that fun says so much about how they treat their skills, talents, and careers.
I’m showing this clip to my Year 12s as an example of musical excellence in professional performing, with these two young professionals at the beginning of their careers, but more importantly, as an example of life-learning + character. It’s so wonderful to find young, outstanding musicians, still being…normal, nerdy, curious, playful people.
That’s what I want for my students + myself. The complete package…with no frills, not attitude, no sass, no elitism…just a total respect and care for themselves + their talents.
And a little bit of nerdy.
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.