"So, Diane, tell me - is Ellen in your top three?"
Ellen was a new transfer student. She'd previously studied piano at a prestigious big-city conservatory. (Her parents had told me that in their first phone call.) She'd only been with me a few months. Her father was anxious to know how she compared to my other students.
"Hmm...to be honest, I wouldn't know how to answer that question," I replied honestly. "I don't think about my students in that way."
He wasn't dissuaded.
"Well, let's say that you rated them on a scale of 1 to 100, what kind of score would you give her? And how would that compare with your other students?"
Clearly, he thought I hadn't understood the question.
"I'm sorry, but I can't do that. Each student has their own strengths and challenges. I don't compare them in that way. They aren't things I can compare. Each student is a different person with their own unique traits."
"But, if you WERE to compare them," he persisted, "Where would Ellen be? Is she one of the best?"
"I don't compare them. And I won't."
I wasn't surprised the next year when Ellen decided to go away to boarding school for high school. With a Dad like that, I would have gotten as far away as I could have, too.
Looking back now, I realize there was a time when I would have eagerly answered his questions. I would have known exactly how each of my students measured up against each other. I used to think about it all the time. I used to think, rather coldly, about what each student lacked. How each one could be better. Not how I could teach them better. Just how they could be better students. As if they each were fixed commodities. I wasn't thinking about getting to know each student and their unique quirks and gifts. No, I spent time measuring each of my current students against the ideal student in my head. Never mind that there never was and would never be that ideal student.
I learned, mostly the hard way, that those students I found "lacking" were only lacking in my mind. When I finally realized that each one of them was doing their best, (and that even the most gifted students came with strengths and weaknesses) I started asking myself a different set of questions.
Questions like these:
What if I did my best with each and every student?
What if I taught them each as a unique and wonderful individual?
What if I became more interested, not less, when something was difficult for a student?
What if I became a teacher? A real live teacher?
It took a real mind shift to give up on the idea of finding better students. To stop thinking that I'd be a better and more successful teacher if I could just find some better students. But since that mindset wasn't working for me, I decided to try something different. I started teaching each individual child as if they mattered.
Not only did this make me happier, but every one of my students miraculously started to improve. When I believed in them instead of comparing them, it made a palpable change. They could feel the difference.
In these days of standardized testing and music exams, it's easy to keep a ruler handy.
Rulers were meant for measuring things, not people. As a teacher, the last thing you should do is think of your gorgeous students as things.
So go ahead.
Throw out your ruler.
If these ideas interest you or even make you uncomfortable, you might be interested in these books.
Carol Dweck's brilliant book Mindset.
The Mislabeled Child by Brock and Fernette Eide.
The Whole-Brain Child by Daniel J. Siegel.
If you'd like more from me, visit teachwithdiane.com.