“Wow! What talented students you have!”
If you are an arts educator whose students have presented work to the public, you have probably heard something like this. On the one hand, it is a lovely sentiment. Someone has consumed the play, art show, concert, dance recital, etc. that your students made, and they have enjoyed it. And the compliment seems meant to extend to you: the students did well, and therefore, so did you.
(I don’t think people realize that by complimenting my students’ “talent,” they are treating the students’ work and learning, not to mention my teaching, as irrelevant. Which is unfortunate, because the value of the work lies almost entirely in…well, the work, the process of producing, the day-to-day exchanges of insight among students and teacher. Oddly enough, I’ve had administrators compliment my students’ innate ability at 9:00 pm and talk about how we should never do that while leading a growth mindset workshop at 8:00 the next morning.)
We love to reward a polished product with high praise — and we love to have students chase accolades. Visual art competitions allow students from different schools to compete for prizes based on whose work seems the most professional. Theatre and speech competitions offer kids a chance to show off their talents and connect with likeminded young people. The statewide music assessment gives the school band, choir, or orchestra something big to prepare for. Professional organizations give awards to arts educators they deem outstanding.
I don’t begrudge any teacher who takes part in these events. Having students chosen as all-state artists or winning “Straight 1’s” at music contest can feel validating for teachers and students alike, in a way not often available to non-athletic pursuits. Many school administrators do not value or understand learning in the arts, so external recognition can be an important part of a teacher’s reputation or even their job security.
I do, however, begrudge this emphasis on excellence, this notion that what one produces must be of high technical quality to have been a worthwhile use of time, and that the students and teachers who produce the most excellence are therefore the most worthy of praise. This is an untrue and harmful idea.
To even ask the question flies in the face of who we think we are supposed to be as educators. Shouldn’t we want every student to achieve as much as humanly possible, to be their best selves? After all, a student who works to meet high standards is refining skills with every revision. This has the potential to offer a real depth of learning. It can be deeply rewarding for students to complete a task at a high level of technical accomplishment.
But what about the choir student who is mindlessly singing those ten measures over and over again, with no idea why their teacher is asking them to repeat them? What about the eighth grade clarinet player who is so tired of dealing with the minutiae of how to play their band pieces well enough to win the state competition that they quit after eighth grade and never play again? What about the musical theatre students who are rehearsing the dance break past the point of exhaustion simply because their work does not match the director’s aesthetic vision? (Related question: when do students get to have aesthetic vision?) What about the young painter whose fear of failure leads to hospitalization for anxiety? Did striving for perfection serve these students?
My philosophy these days is that striving for perfection is good, provided:
A few years ago, I began taking tennis lessons. This was a real emotional risk for me, a person whose athletic “career” had consisted mostly of nonstop failure in P.E. class. Every childhood athletic pursuit felt like a series of trick questions, a blur of impossible tasks and incomprehensible codes, many of which seemed to lead somehow to my classmates yelling homophobic slurs at me. So I didn’t have good psychological associations with sports. But I wanted to try something new, and I had liked tennis ever since five-year-old me spent weekend mornings with my dad watching John McEnroe win (or be a sore loser) at Wimbledon on TV.
So, one August morning, I reported to the tennis courts for my first group lesson. There were three of us adult students, all ready to learn but nervous about how it was going to go. The teacher, Vijay, appeared to be a college student who had played tennis for years. He ran us through a set of beginner-level drills. The three of us managed to execute the drills despite an obvious and shared lack of hand-eye coordination.
A few minutes before the end of the lesson, Vijay lined us up for one final drill. I couldn’t tell you what it was, but it moved much too quickly for us. I think Vijay had learned from his tennis coaches to end practice with a bang — something of great intensity and challenge. He hadn’t learned to modify his activities based on the needs of his students (that’s understandable — I was a lot older than Vijay before I figured out how to do that in my own teaching!). So we failed and failed and failed. And for a recovering straight-A student like me, it felt…shameful. I came so close to putting down my racket, leaving the court, and quitting the class.
I was embarrassed at how bad at this I was.
Somehow, I dragged myself back to tennis the next week. And the next week. And the few weeks after that. And I was glad that I did. My skills improved — not to the point where I was anything remotely resembling a good tennis player, but enough so that I could relax a little and start to enjoy myself.
The experience made me wonder about my students’ experience in my class. How many of my students feel about playing music the same fear and shame that I felt about my tennis skills? Do I provide them a safe space, not only to make mistakes, but to know that they are a valued member of the learning community even if they are ultimately not very skilled at their instrument? Is there a place in my program for a student who does not want to achieve expert level — a student who wants to dabble?
A teaching artist I respect deeply, a man named Eric Booth, wrote those words. I love and recommend his book The Everyday Work of Art. Eric’s point was that in striving for technically flawless execution, we leave out the things that make the arts most worthwhile.
If you are pushing your students to a high level of technical achievement, I applaud you — really! But I also ask you to consider the following questions:
Arts educators can have a vital role in building a more humane, joyous, peaceful, equitable, democratic society. We have the power to take our students through deep explorations of profound truths, showing them centuries of insight on the world and inspiring them to imagine something better. The mistake-free concert, the technically flawless painting, the immaculately synchronized dance performance can be exciting and even inspiring to young people, but they are not our only reason for existing. And allowing students to make mistakes — or even to be mediocre at the work at times — may well open up space for us to guide them to a place of even greater truth, beauty, and humanity.
The first part of the title of this essay is taken from Mary Oliver’s poem “Wild Geese.”