I think something about this idea as an axiom for work and life was always there for me. When I was a child my father admonished me many times to do my best. I remember him saying to me on numerous occasions “Be the best at whatever it is you choose to do. It doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you are the best at it. If you decide to be a garbage man, then be the best garbage man!” It made a strong impression on me as a young child, and I am sure had numerous (foreseen and unforeseen) consequences for the course of my life.
My father’s admonition to me to be the best may have been a paraphrase of a quote from a famous speech that I learned about later when I was an adult:
Even if it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, go out and sweep streets like Michaelangelo painted pictures, sweep streets like Handel and Beethoven composed music, sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry. Sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well!’
~ Martin Luther King, Jr.
New Covenant Baptist Church
Chicago, Illinois, April 9, 1967
My family heritage on my father’s side is completely German or nearly so, hence the name. Another story my father used to tell me – indicative of an upbringing influenced by German Lutheran attitudes – is that when he was a boy his father (also Walter Bitner), who was a physician, would routinely ask him at the dinner table: “What did you do constructive today?” And so my father would also ask me that too, although maybe not as often as his father had asked him. Perhaps he recalled not always having a good answer for his Dad, and decided to spare me.
But: to be the best. It’s a tall order, for anyone, and by definition this can only be achieved by very few.
As a child and a young man I was acutely aware of this dilemma, especially when I did not measure up. The feeling of falling short of my potential is one of shame, yet it is inevitable for most of us if excellence – being “the best” – is based on triumphing over others.
As a young teacher I was suspicious of music educators who sought to encourage excellence among their students though competition. “Can’t they see how discouraging this process is for those who do not win?” I thought. While there are many students who thrive in competitive environments, and even seem to need the motivation of competition to rise to their best, for others these kinds of activities are a burden to be suffered as the price of making music in a social environment. For others still, the competitive environment of school music programs is enough to deter them from participating altogether.
The attitude that seeks to encourage excellence in music education primarily through competition works if you believe that music education is an elite activity, only to be pursued by those who have a special talent or interest. But if you believe that music education is a basic component of a complete education for every child, this position becomes untenable.
And yet it is incumbent on teachers to encourage their students to strive for excellence.
I was fortunate to realize early in my teaching career the tremendous benefits that a solid music education can have for all children. Musical talent is dirt cheap – virtually everyone has it to some degree. Most adults I have met can carry a tune, at least a little. Yes, the depth and intensity of musical aptitude varies between individuals, but what ultimately makes the most difference in one’s musical abilities are training and effort.
My experience teaching elementary school children convinced me that all children are capable of learning to sing well and in tune (with very few exceptions due to developmental issues or impairments), and that nearly all children are capable of learning to read music and play an instrument. I had 100% success teaching children to sing choral music with good intonation in my 15 years of teaching music in small school environments, and my success rate with teaching them to read notation fluently and play instruments – usually recorders and strings – was somewhere around 95%.
Some prerequisites are necessary to achieve this level of success, but they are relatively simple: a supportive environment both at school and at home, ample time provided for in the school schedule, and dedicated and capable teachers. The requirements for a high quality music education program at the elementary school level are modest from a financial perspective – to be successful a program like this requires primarily a greater emphasis on its importance from the school and community, and a greater allotment of time in the child’s life.
From “Be The Best” to “Best Effort”
Convinced of the importance and vitality of a quality music education for all children, I began to think about effective means to motivate them to strive for excellence. By the time I was considering this dilemma on a conscious level I had already become aware that the contemporary widespread use of competition to motivate students in music education, while in many cases successful in allowing directors to have ensembles that perform well and in motivating some students to do their best, at the same time discourages and alienates others from participating in school music programs.
I was fortunate to work at two schools – Blue Rock School in West Nyack, New York (1991 – 1995) and Linden Corner School in Nashville (2004 – 2007) – where the curriculum demanded 100% participation from every student in every aspect of the school music program. Further, when I taught at Carrollwood Day School in Odessa, Florida (1999 – 2003), every student participated in general music classes, and I was able to convince the administration to make it mandatory for all third graders to participate in chorus for a semester – as a result, more than 80% of elementary students remained in chorus after this semester. Once they had experienced bringing repertoire through the process of rehearsal to performance, most of them were committed.
At Blue Rock and Linden Corner, teachers were admonished to teach through example, and we were discouraged from overtly teaching concepts or principles of behavior and social interaction. The emphasis in these alternative school environments was on teaching indirectly to encourage and nourish the child’s inner freedom. At Carrollwood Day School (and other schools I have taught at) the opposite was true: students were regularly provided with intellectual material describing ethical, productive, and positive personal and social behaviors. At CDS, this program was fully developed and articulated as a Character Education program that won a national award while I was on the faculty there.
In the end, I came to the conclusion that both direct and indirect means are important – in fact, crucial – not only for a healthy school environment, but to foster each’s child’s development as an individual and social being.
To me, the significance of the school music program – alongside its mission to provide comprehensive training for the development of music skills and knowledge, attention, and memory – is as a vehicle for teaching and providing an experience of positive community. I have written about this here.
The turning point in the development of my philosophy of how to motivate students came in the fall of 2002, when I taught at CDS. I was in my fourth year as performing arts director, and somehow convinced the administration to allow me to present Patricia Gray’s 1968 stage play of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit in lieu of the annual middle school musical, a production which I mounted annually at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center (now Straz Center for the Performing Arts).
At some point that fall, when I had obtained permission to go ahead with the project and began to make preparations, I realized that it was likely I would never have another chance to do this. The Hobbit is far and away the most important book of my childhood – I read it when I was 10 and together with The Lord of the Rings it opened the gates to the inner world of my imagination, and provided solace and escape through my turbulent adolescence and young adulthood. The chance to bring this personally beloved story to my school community through an all-school theatre production was for me, a once in a lifetime opportunity. What became very clear was how important this project was to me personally, and that if I did not try to bring all of my faculties to the table and give it my very best effort, I would deeply regret not having done so. It was very unlikely that I would get a second chance.
Later, when the production was in the past and in years to follow as I reflected on this experience, I saw clearly that this, in fact, is always the situation we are in. The past is gone, forever. The only way to live, truly – without regret – is to strive to do my best, always, in every situation.
Best Effort and Intrinsic Motivation
The foundation of Best Effort as a principle for life was laid for me early in childhood, by my father as described at the top of this article. Looking back, I have always had a predilection to throw myself entirely into artistic projects especially – what was new for me about my experience with The Hobbit is that I made connections between this impulse to strive to do my best with the recognition of the finiteness of existence, and with the realization that regret is one of the worst emotions to live with.
Shortly after this experience, when we had moved to Nashville and I found myself teaching in a new and challenging school environment, it came as second nature to me to include Best Effort when I was drafting the Four Practices – virtues for behavior I went on to teach all of my students for the rest of my teaching career.
Teachers take care: Best Effort as a classroom axiom will make your life more difficult. In the first place, you must model Best Effort yourself in all the behaviors you exhibit to your students, and if you fail to give your best effort, be the first to admit it – to them. If you don’t, you will be of little help to your students in developing this impulse for themselves. You cannot demand that your students give their Best Effort when you are not doing so.
Beyond this demand on you personally, you must observe your students closely over a period of time that is sufficient to allow you to accurately gauge when they are giving their best effort, and when they are not. The distribution of aptitude and preparation from student to student will always vary tremendously, and although you may be required to assess them according to a standardized scale of measurements, standardized assessments are ultimately irrelevant in regard to a child’s moral development. Only you and your students are likely to know when they have given their very best effort. By definition it is impossible for anyone to give a better effort than their Best Effort – regardless of whether or not it measures up to the highest predetermined standard. It will be your great responsibility to know whether or not your students have given their very best, and assess accordingly. The strength of the relationship you have with each student will be primary to any success you will have in influencing the efforts they make.
Teaching your students to strive to give their Best Effort as part of the Four Practices is a means to motivate them intrinsically. Because of this, there are other difficulties in bringing a program like this to your students – you may face skepticism from colleagues and administration – as the attitudes that prevail in education today regarding classroom management are based on behaviorist psychology. The reward systems that many teachers now use for classroom management are designed to motivate students extrinsically. The use of these programs devalues the work that teachers and students do together, and seriously compromises the opportunity that teachers have to influence their students’ moral and ethical development.
Despite the challenges involved, by encouraging your students to give their Best Effort and doing so yourself, the experience your students have in your classroom will begin to demonstrate for them how to live without regret, and will contribute to the development of a healthy conscience for each child in your care.
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