As the end of my first academic year out of school comes to a close, I've found myself considering what defines success. Is success something that is defined compared to peers? Are some people successful and others not, or can everyone achieve success? Is success defined within determined confines for a situation or profession?
I do not aim to answer these questions, but merely illustrate scenarios that my students, and I, have or will encounter, and consider the different types and angles of success.
I pursued an undergraduate degree in Music Education, which many use to become public school music teachers, or more specifically for my field: band directors.
I am not a band director.
As a graduate student, I pursued a master's degree in Trombone Performance, which most use to become professional trombonists, performing as a freelancer or in a stable group, such as an orchestra, military band, etc.
I am not performing trombonist.
Sure, I've chosen a route that utilizes both my performance and educational skills, in a completely legitimate capacity. But how does straying from the norm impact my level of success? As a private instructor, I'm a freelancer. I operate as a small business, not a teacher. Many of peers are actively performing, taking auditions, and striving to win full time playing jobs. While I want to play as much as I can, I prefer to focus on my teaching, and thusly my personal playing is not always on par.
Am I a less successful trombonist as a result of my personal goals?
In many ways, I share more in common with the full time educators I work for. I focus on working with the students, creating new opportunities for them to perform, and developing new materials and techniques to reach higher goals. I do not share the burden of public educators, though, as I'm not confined by grades, testing, state standards, lesson plans, faculty meetings, lunch duty, and the list could go on. My teaching is not supervised, evaluated, and often not planned that far in advance. I do not prepare for rehearsals the same way I would if I held a true teaching job, and I can tell my teaching suffers compared to when I properly prepare. I do always try my best, however, and put in 100% in the moment for the benefit of the students.
Am I a less successful educator as a result of the nature of my position?
So, what about the students? The school culture fixates on developing successful students based on grades, standardized testing, and competition. Is a student who receives a C on a test less successful even though their hard work led to their first grade above an F? If a student makes the top band simply because no one else auditioned more successful than the sophomore that for beat out by four seniors?
Competition isn't any better because it's either relative or arbitrary. I'll never forget winning a state championship with my high school marching band despite an awful performance: the judge simply sneezed and missed our mistakes, so they were left with the impression we had done well. Our performance certainly wasn't successful, but if the others were also subpar we could still come out on top. Competition that isn't judged by comparison uses standards that may not reflect student's level of achievement or work, however, which I've seen through high marks for mediocre performance. This method clearly is counterproductive to motivation for higher achievement and work ethic.
So how do we measure success? To avoid arbitrary evaluation, our society uses competition and comparison to create criteria for success. Those who reach highest are successful, and those who follow must attain the same achievement in order to be deemed a success. This is great in theory, as we all end up competing in the real world for jobs and enjoyment, but it doesn't hold up for educational philosophy.
We're told every child is different, and that each require an education tailored to fit them. Educators develop multiple strategies to teach the same concept in an effort to reach every student. Teachers differentiate instruction in their classroom, and create multiple scenarios for projects for students to demonstrate their learning.
But testing is standardized.
Success is still measured by comparing a product to criteria created by levels of achievement of those who came before us. We're all given opportunity to choose our own path, but the image of "successful" people is constantly reinforced by standards of CEOs, A's on tests, and constantly being on top.
Are there other versions of success?
As I reflect upon my year I reach the following conclusion: I have experienced success, and a great deal of it. My studio has grown tremendously in size. A culture of high expectations and hard work is developing. My students were accepted into Region Band, performed well at their Solo and Ensemble contests, put on a great studio recital, and have made leaps and bounds of progress in their playing.
These are parameters that I have self-imposed though. As a freelancer, no one observes my teaching for evaluation. I suppose if things were truly awful, my students would want to quit, but if they haven't had many private teachers before, they may not know the difference. There are no awards for my line of teaching, and no standards to be judged by. How do I measure success?
That leads to the final question:
Is there a point where one can determine his or her own success based on intrinsic feeling and self-evaluation, and how does that impact long term growth?
Jeff Dunn, trombone
An avid educator, performer, and advocate for music.