It’s that time of year.
Suddenly, the past week or so, I feel it rising up in my chest. It’s a thing I don’t usually feel a whole lot of, and so when I do, it grips my spirit hard, expands inside my chest until it feels like there’s not a whole lot of room for anything else.
Anxiety is a tricky enemy, one that sneaks up on you in small moments at first, just one thought at a time, one unguarded fear. But left unchecked, that fear gives birth to other fears, that first anxious moment breeds so many that before too long, you can’t even see straight.
So it’s time to check it, before it gets out of control.
This is competition season for my choirs. I remember loving competition season as a student. At that point, I had a proper perspective on it. Or maybe it was more that I hadn’t ever gotten anything but top ratings at competition. It’s easy to love competition when you’re always among the best.
Long story short, a decade later, I don’t love competition season as a teacher. At all. I absolutely dread it. Because last year went about as badly as it could have gone. And I have not stopped tasting failure on my tongue for the past year. And after almost three decades of success in this area, the one area where I’ve always felt sure of myself and my abilities, the taste of failure is unbearably bitter and haunting, particularly to a person who has always and forever struggled with an addiction to approval.
I lose perspective on it constantly. I lose the ability to see past it. I forget that those numbers from last year weren’t created to measure the holistic journey from August to March. They couldn’t measure the hundreds and thousands of moments I spent trying and trying again to create relationships with students who just wanted me to go away and give their previous, beloved choir director back to them. They couldn’t measure the progress we made, or the conversations we had, or the moments when my kiddos came to appreciate and even love music they would never consider listening to on their own. They couldn’t measure the lightbulb moments that rarely take place in performance and competition, but almost always in the messy process of trying and failing and learning and rehearsing, in the blood, sweat, and tears of preparation.
And I know all this. On an intellectual level, I’m absolutely aware that the best learning, the best education, cannot be quantified with a number. That’s a truth I believe could change the entire face of our education system, but that’s another rant for another day.
I know all of that. But still, the anxiety rises. Still, the worry that I’ll be weighed, measured, and found wanting keeps me awake at night. Still, the fear that maybe the progress of my choirs from last year to this year, and therefore my progress from last year to this year, just won’t make the cut. I know how much my students and I have grown. I know how hard we’ve worked. But I also know that when the numbers are based on one day out of 185, 20 minutes out of 9250, they rarely tell the whole story.
But man, my brain wrestles with that. I look at the numbers from last year, and it’s very hard not to base the value of the entire year on them. The value of myself. It feels impossible not to make that number the sum total of my worth as a teacher. And that affects the way I see myself, the way I do my job, the way I approach my students, the desire to be creative in my approach, the joy I take in doing what I do every day. It affects everything about my classroom.
There are a lot of people writing a lot of beautiful and true things about the negative impact our heavy emphasis on one-test-one-week is having on our kiddos. There is so much truth and validity to the fact that when we turn students into numbers and ratings and standards, the freedom to love learning is ripped open and bled out by the need to perform up to expectations.
I would submit that our students aren’t the only ones suffering. Some days it feels a lot like the freedom to love teaching is being ripped open and bled out by the need to perform up to expectations.