You Can’t Always Get What You Want

Midterm has come and gone. Books, papers, uniform policies, misunderstood memos and excuses for being late to class are all back in session.

But what about our students? Are they?

Let me begin by saying that I care tremendously about my students as people. Real human beings that live in a real – and often cruel – world.

But I’m going to make a confession: Some days I feel guilty and embarrassed while I’m standing in front of the teenagers I teach. Guilty because I know I could do better than a PowerPoint and a worksheet, and embarrassed that our education system has pretty much remained unchanged since the 1900’s. Sure, we pay lip service to the idea that our students are learning in a 21st century environment and how “the future” is right here in front of us in our classrooms. We go to conferences, teacher training sessions, and sit through countless committee meetings where we collectively pat ourselves on the back for “meeting the needs of our students”.

But are we really doing that? Our schools still look a lot like prisons from an architectural standpoint, and our evaluations still include final exams and term papers. We’ve kept the worst parts of education, and given up on the things that made the most sense.

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We are meeting the wants of our students, not their needs. Our students need rigor, consequences, to be taught how to cope with stress, to build resiliency, and to not be afraid of living their dreams. That’s what the “real world” they are always told about demands of them. What they want is often driven by finding the path of least resistance, and unfortunately many parents these days are the enablers of this type of attitude. Less homework, predictable assignments, no deadlines or a million excuses to justify a late submission, the removal of a stressor, and flowery language on assignments and report cards so no one “feels bad about themselves”.

Perhaps part of what they need is not to feel good about themselves all the time.

I spent the better part of my childhood and teenage years learning how to play several musical instruments. In the sixth grade I was introduced to the saxophone, and I also started piano lessons. I hated piano lessons because none of the music I listened to was really piano-based. I love my rock and heavy metal, and I always have. As for alto sax, I thought it was the coolest of all the band instruments, so I chose that one. I sat through years of rehearsals, music theory lessons, and got to perform in front of some pretty big crowds. I was also belittled, yelled at, had a conductor’s baton thrown at me, and was subject to the band leader sitting right next to me pointing to each note on the score in front of me as I played an important solo over and over again while everyone else was on “break”. That’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Many of my non-musician friends have asked me “Have you seen the movie Whiplash?” Yes, indeed I have. But I didn’t flinch once when the band leader had an “outburst”. While not as extreme, I was subject to that kind of treatment at every rehearsal. No one ever said “good job” or “that was great!”. Instead, it was constant work. I practiced for hours on end at home so that when I went to rehearsal, it wouldn’t be me that was centred out for messing up. I grew to both love and hate the process for different reasons, but it did teach me that sometimes, you can’t “feel good about yourself” when you are working towards a goal. “Feeling good” about something that isn’t your best breeds mediocrity.

I have no doubt in my mind that I became the musician – and the person – I am today because of that so-called “abuse” I endured for years during rehearsals. Because it wasn’t abuse. It was what was necessary to learn how to play like I can. It was what was needed to get 60 teenagers to be able to play a piece of music the way the composer had intended. The verbal flogging by every single music teacher I’ve had is what has taught me to never be satisfied with the mediocre. The “homework and the dirty looks” is what it takes to be great – not just in a classroom, but in life.

By the time I was 16 and first picked up a guitar, I knew what it would take to be able to play the instrument well as opposed to just be able to strum 3 chords on it. I knew it was going to be difficult, and that it would take hours of work to play even a fraction as well as my guitar heroes do. I didn’t quit because it was difficult. I worked harder because it was difficult. Because no one ever said “good job” when I sloppily played through a piece I had 2 weeks to learn. Because no one ever said “that’s great sweetie!” when I messed up a solo in rehearsal that would later be played in front of 2000 people which included Toronto’s mayor and his guest, the Italian president. When I did play that same solo perfectly, the only positive feedback I got from the conductor on my way out the door was “First alto. You played the solo perfectly. See you next week at rehearsal.” That was considered a compliment. The message: “You did it right this time, but don’t rest on your laurels”.

I’m promising myself that I’m going to try and pass a little bit of that notion on to my students, and it is my hope that all educators out there “take back” the system that they are a part of and do what our students need, not what they want, because just like my music teacher once told me: “The sweet isn’t as sweet if you haven’t tasted the bitter of hard work.” It won’t always be easy, and you won’t always feel good about yourself – but if you don’t give up you might actually learn something: how to survive.

In my next blog post: Why remaining relevant is essential to student learning and teacher growth.

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