On Teaching: Doubt, Sorrow and Joy

What is success? How do we cultivate successful students? How do we model it as teachers? Is it possible to both succeed AND fail in the same endeavor? If so, is the overall effect one of success or failure?

In my education classes at university, we generally defined educational success in two ways:
a) meeting high objective standards
b) growing by 500% (or some other such large amount)

Obviously, students who do both are successful – if they have shown tremendous growth AND met the standards, we applaud them and send them on their way. But what about if we only see one side or the other? We easily accept students who meet the standards without having shown much growth – we call them the “lazy smart kids,” smile, and wonder how they will do in college. Yet we have a harder time accepting the students who show phenomenal growth and still fail to meet the objective standards. We don’t want to call them failures, yet neither can we assure them of that college acceptance letter.

Where am I going with this educational ramble?

Sweeney Todd. The drama teacher here at school chose Sondheim’s show as this year’s musical production. It’s long, dark, and technically demanding from every perspective. Long – 2.5 hours. Dark – all but two primary characters die gruesome deaths. Demanding – the set is complex as it involves a movable, two-story structure with a trap-door. The props list is long and includes food, shaving cream and blood. 80% of the plot is sung, and the music is collegiate at least: poly-rhythmic, polyphonic, and usually dissonant. Sopranos are asked to sing up to a D above the staff, and most of the soloists need a minimum of an octave-and-a-half range. In September we chose a cast of 20 and worked on it for about ten weeks. The show went up over Thanksgiving weekend – I spent much of Sunday recovering and as you can see, I’m still processing.

So how did they do?
Phenomenal! Considering …
Considering what?
… considering our lead female had not acted or sung on a stage since 4th grade.
… considering two of our secondary males and one of our secondary females had never acted.
… considering half of the chorus couldn’t read music.
… considering two of the three males in the chorus have voices that are only partially changed.
… considering the limited budget for props and limited time allocated by the administration.

But why state the “considerations?” How did they do on an objective level?
Did they deliver the lines? Could they be heard?
Did they sing the notes? The rhythms?
Did they present their characters appropriately?
Dynamically?
Did they engage the audience?
Was emotion and meaning conveyed?
Yes … no … sometimes …

And here is where I come back to the definition of success. I could go through all the members of the cast and list the ways in which they each stunned me. Every individual showed amazing growth – some by 100% and others by 500%. They put on a show that has had teachers and students buzzing with positive feedback. My heart glows with pride, but my still head wonders if it was right thing to do.

No, they didn’t sing all the notes and rhythms – of the chorus parts, I reduced much of the 5/6-part polyphony to 2/3-part homophony. No, they didn’t deliver all the lines, nor could all the lines be heard. The auditorium is large, their voices are young, and we don’t have wireless mics. Our lead female turned out to be very good but very forgetful. She and others covered it well and there were no crash-and-burn moments, but there were still chunks missing. As a result, it was hard to engage all the audience. No, they never executed the choreography with the precision we wanted. In short, did they do the script as it was written? No – though Sweeney and a handful of others came close.

So on one hand, the show was fraught with failures. On the other, that they performed it at all is significant. That they showed spectacular growth along the way as musicians and actors is better than significant – it is a teacher’s joy.

At this point, all is said and done. I would never now say to any one of these kids, “you should not have had this experience,” especially since they are all still glowing from the achievement. Yet, I do still feel some of the weight of responsibility. Perhaps I was responsible for poor teaching – had I been a better-skilled, more-experienced teacher, I might have gotten the chorus to sing the hard parts. Or perhaps the real responsibility lay in finding a skill-appropriate challenge for them. It is my responsibility to give students what I think they might be able to do, not with what I know they cannot. And perhaps that is where the “sorrow” part of teaching comes in. There is deep sorrow when as a teacher you realize too late that you have given your students something they will not or can not achieve. At that point you back-peddle, simplify and pray that they taste enough success in the experience to keep going and not curse you with the painful memory of failure.

For my own part, I am thankful for the experience. I’m thankful for the chance to see this cast learn and grow – to achieve something they didn’t know they couldn’t do. I’m thankful for the eyes to see my own failures and realize that they may only be stepping stones to future successes.

2 thoughts on “On Teaching: Doubt, Sorrow and Joy

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  1. GOD BLESS YOU for taking on such a daunting task and coming through with a positive and growing outlook. I know the show well and… well, I think you did amazingly well if the show came off, no one was hurt and they grew from the experience. I have done CRAZY things at the HS level and the LORD blessed and filled the gap. Thank the LORD for miracles!

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