Excellence and Self Esteem

By John Gardner

I have been conflicted for years on the proper educationally correct balance between helping students feel good about themselves….and encouraging achievement by encouraging and expecting excellence.

In a scholarly paper entitled, “Self-Esteem and Excellence: The Choice and the Paradox“, Barbara Lemer compares the strategies of creating intellectual stimulation with a climate of high self-esteem vs the argument that a child’s self-esteem can withstand criticism of shortcomings in the quest of excellence against a set of standards.

On his “School for Champions” site, Ron Kurtus writes to students about The Importance of Striving for Excellence.

I came through a lot of “Old School” education, including techniques that could get a teacher in trouble today. But, for me….it worked. And so…the conflict.

My high school band director…

…recently retired after decades as the Director of Bands at a major university, did not care about our self-esteem. He never told us we were good and only commented that we were years after we were all gone from that place (see video and comment below). One of the few comments in a marching band rehearsal ever directed specifically at me was,

“Gardner, you march like a cow.”

So much for my personal self-esteem. I didn’t need to feel good about myself, I needed to improve my performance.

Toward the end of a competition once, as we were watching the bands that followed us, he pointed to one individual (fortunately not me) and said,

“If we lose this contest, it is YOUR fault.”

That one was harsh. I can’t imagine how that student would have felt. Fortunately we won.

He never told us we were an inner-city school, never said that we were under-privileged or under-funded. He never compromised when he demanded that every clarinet student acquire a top-line, pro-level Selmer Series 10 clarinet. No excuses. No exceptions. I sold lemonade on the local golf course and made a 50-50 deal with my dad to acquire mine.

At any moment, he would ask us to play a section of music in front of the band and, if less than perfect, he was brutal. Did we increase personal practice out of a search for excellence — or out of fear? Bottom line: we practiced and got better. Tell me the goal again.

Did it work? In terms of Achievement, yes. During my Freshman and Sophomore years, we never, ever lost a competition. We never got less than a “superior” rating in concert band festivals. When it came to All-State Band, our inner-city bandsters held the 1st chair positions for Flute, Clarinet, Alto Sax, Trumpet, French Horn, Baritone, Tuba and Percussion. Our concert band played at both a KMEA (KY) and MENC (National) music educator conventions.

We felt good about ourselves because we were good. Our self-esteem was the result of excellence, not encouragement. Is that wrong?

The most devastating comment soon to be Dr. Director ever made to me, a few years later when I met him at a collegiate conference, was….

“I was wrong.”

During the process of getting his doctorate (and during my college years of music education training), the prevailing theory became that creating good self-esteem was paramount, Self concept trumped both excellence and achievement. Was that the beginning of educational deterioration?

Here’s a YouTube video of the 1969 Holmes HS Band at the “Contest of Champions” in Murfreesboro, TN. Years later, this major mentor said,

“That was as close to perfection of any of my high school performances.”

Here’s a picture of his college band:

My high school clarinet teacher…

…was a high school band director at one of the communities outside the city. He taught private clarinet lessons and my band director wanted me to study with him….but there was no way we could afford his rate. My band director convinced him to give me an “audition” to be in his studio. My mother drove me to his house, I played the simple piece I had taken to 8th grade solo contest, and he responded with:

“You’ve got potential. I can make you a better, but we both have a problem. You can’t afford me while I, however, have a bad heart and cannot cut my grass, shovel my snow or rearrange my furniture.  If you ware willing to do those things for me, I will teach you until the day you show up here unprepared. Do we have a deal?”

He could have “given” me lessons by enabling me to “earn” them, he enhanced my self-esteem while enhancing my chances for achieving excellence. Would a “deal” like that be considered abusive today?  Actually, I’ve tried. No takers. Sad.

Roden was teaching the 1st chair clarinetists from three area schools. When it came time for senior year Solo Contest, he gave all three of us the same piece of music. His focus was not on helping each of us feel good…but rather, to play that piece of music better than the other two. You can read more about that story, along with the outcome, in “Four Influential Men“.

My college clarinet professor

As decision-time for college approached, I had two full ride offers from schools where I had participated in clinics and summer camps; Eastern Kentucky University and Morehead State University. My clarinet teacher recommended a different school/teacher and I took his advice.

Dr. Miller drove 70 miles to my high school to audition me. I performed that flashy contest piece from solo contest that resulted in a standing ovation from the judge and a I++ rating. When I finished, I pompously waited for the praise. Instead, I witnessed a man in pain, pulling on his short beard, trying to think of words that would inspire me to choose his school, right? After a pause that seemed like an eternity, he finally offered this dated comment…

“Not bad. Flashy, but NASA can teach monkeys how to wiggle their fingers. What else can you do.?”

Those hour-long 1-1 lessons each week were about survival. I recall sitting outside his office waiting for the person before me to finish. When the door opened, an excellent clarinetist came out of the room crying, took the reed off her horn and smashed it up against the wall as I heard him call out from inside the room, “NEXT”!

He did teach me how to play better. I accomplished a lot during college. But during my final semester, when he finally realized that I really was going to do the “education” thing and spend time student teaching, one of his parting comments to me;

“I wasted four years of my life on you.”

But now that I am a teacher…

…I find that I am not willing to talk to students that way. Actually, I probably would be fired for doing so.

Today it would be educationally incorrect (and probably unacceptable) to require a student to stand with arms outstretched parallel to the ground for ten minutes, or to do laps around the field (1 per each minute tardy) or push ups for making a mistake. Today we must make exceptions and allowances for the nearly 30% of the student population with IEP’s. To ask a student to play a part in front of everyone in the ensemble….oh my. It is okay that your instrument is a piece of junk, or that your parents won’t “give” you the money for individualized coaching. After all, I can’t say anything to forceful or you’ll drop the class or quit the lessons. What if you’re on medication? What if I missed a condition in the book of IEP’s? What if your parents call the school?

Not too long ago, I read an article (sorry, having trouble finding it again) that seemed to support my pre-IEP, pre-Self-Esteem-is-everything approach to education.

“…students should experience Self-Esteem as a result of Excellence Achievement.”

I would modify that slightly. ACHIEVING excellence may not represent reality for everyone, but everyone can STRIVE for excellence.

What do YOU think?

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17 yrs experience as a high school band director. 14 yrs as college adjunct faculty. 30+ yrs in the fundraising industry and 24 yrs as a small business owner. (Don't add all those up.). Experience in both the fundraising sales and education worlds give me a unique combination of perspectives in both. I love working with the youthful enthusiasm of today's teenage achievers and with those who work with them. Also 4yrs as proprietor of VirtualMusicOffice.com, which offers a wide variety of virtual services including web/blog design/hosting/managing, social media management (scheduling posts/tweets for maximum impact and brand enhancement) and small business consulting - specializing in school product fundraising.

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2 comments on “Excellence and Self Esteem
  1. John Tolen says:

    When I was in high school, we would occasionally be put on the spot to play a section of music. Our Director helped us to understand that this was not a direct criticism of our ability to play, but rather a test of our level of commitment and accountability to the rest of the group. You could always tell if someone was sight-reading something for the first time, or if they had actually practiced it at least a few times. Individual excellence would lead to overall success for the group. He also explained to us that the 20 push-ups for breaking any number of rules were not fruitless punishment as the stronger your arms, shoulders, and upper body became, the better you could control and hold your instrument while marching. He was a stickler for respect. He insisted that all band member address any and all adults that we came in contact with as Ma’am and Sir, or Mr. or Mrs. This taught respect and discipline to many students who may never have been exposed to such manners. People noticed.

    He also taught us a lot about perception. What people perceive is what they believe to be true, so if your image is sharp, clean, and professional, that is how you will be perceived and remembered. We were never allowed to undo our uniforms in public. We were required to either be in full uniform, or no uniform. Other bands would walk around with their uniform trousers and t-shirts of varying colors and designs, but not us. Our image was that of a complete, prepared, professional group. And only positive comments were allowed to be made toward any other group. No boos or derogatory remarks were ever tolerated. “Nice job” was the default remark if you had nothing better to say about a group.

  2. Impressive. I won’t ask where or when…..but it sounds like you had a great director. John

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