School culture gurus Terrence Deal and Kent Peterson make a poignant statement in their book Shaping School Culture. “Scores on standardized tests are becoming the only acceptable evidence that students are learning what they need to know. The narrow gauge of achievement tests captures only a small slice of what students take away from their time at school.”
This statement caused me to pause and reflect deeply about my own personal school experience. When I honestly reflect on the skills that I utilize on a regular basis it is clear that every aspect of my school experience shaped the person that I am today. I graduated high school prior to the standardized testing craze which I am thankful for because I wasn’t particularly gifted at memorizing and regurgitating information especially when I had to do it in a set amount of time. I wasn’t “gifted” by any stretch of the imagination and was somewhat disinterested in the core academic subjects. I often didn’t see the connection to the rest of my life and would give minimal effort to receive a B and credit for the course.
School honestly taught me that I was average at best and would more than likely have an average future, but there was one notable exception. I started taking band in middle school and continued into high school and was much better than average. Years of being labeled average had stuck with me and this was the first source of encouragement I had received in school. In fact, my kindergarten teacher wanted to hold me back because I “wasn’t progressing as well as the other kids”. My parents told the administration that they would not support this and I was promoted, but my awareness of the label scarred my self-confidence. I was somewhat slow in learning to read and spoke with a speech impediment so I remember being embarrassed to read out loud. I was acutely aware that I wasn’t meeting the expectations of adults and wasn’t very good at school.
My self confidence was wounded and took years to recover, but it seemed that I had a talent for playing the trumpet and it got me attention that I wasn’t accustomed to. My high school band experience was 100% responsible for restoring my confidence and discovering my strengths. I was fortunate enough to be a part of the Lassiter High School Band under the direction of the legendary Alfred Watkins. Mr. Watkins was known for his tough love and extremely high expectations, but he saw something in my that nobody else had ever considered. He saw that not only was I a talented musician, but I was a leader.
I was fortunate enough to sit as first chair in the top Symphonic Band and serve as section leader in our run to a Bands of America National Championship. Our performance in the high school band world is still recognized as one of the best of all time and is shown as an example to high school band students around the world. What Mr. Watkins helped me discover was that this “average” student was gifted in leadership. I had the opportunity to step out and lead my peers for the first time in my life. I began to see myself differently and owe much of my successes to the metamorphosis that took place thanks to this one teacher and what he saw in me.
When I think about the statement at the beginning of this blog it saddens me to think that many people have tried to reduce students and schools to what can be measured on a standardized test. My life, if determined by a standardized test, would have been nothing better than average. Winning school cultures are made up of individuals who know that each student has a talent and it is our moral responsibility to help them discover it. Schools must be places of discovery and not discouragement. After all, the success of our students will ultimately depend on the totality of their school experience including athletics, music, dance, drama, robotics, and various other vital programs. Look for what is great in every student just as Mr. Watkins did for me.