How Do We Help Students to Want to Strive for Excellence?

I’ve always been a bit of a perfectionist.  Everything I do needs to be as amazing as possible.  I find myself redoing things multiple times on a daily basis, as I am often not proud of the work I complete the first time through.  I hold myself to high standards so that I can be the best version of me possible.  This is both a blessing and a curse at times.  What I do is done really well, but it often takes much longer than if I didn’t have to redo it numerous times.  I find myself rewriting the agenda on my whiteboard at least twice each day, prior to the start of school, because in my eyes, it is crooked.  And we all know that crooked is not a sign of quality work, unless you live in a crooked world like that strange house at Clark’s Trading Post in northern New Hampshire.  I would have so much more free time if I allowed myself to complete sub-par work.  Imagine all the books I could read, poems I could write, television shows I could watch, and quality time I could have with my wife if I didn’t push myself to complete such high-quality work.  So, why don’t I just accept myself for the flawed person that I am?  Why don’t I allow myself to just do something to get it done?  What kind of role model would I be for my students if I didn’t hold the standards high for myself?  I would be a hypocrite.  If I expect my students to do and be their best at all times, then I need to strive for that as well.  No one is perfect, and I’m not expecting perfection, even from myself, but I am looking to be the best me possible.  So, while it might be nice to have spare time to whittle a whistle or paint the next great masterpiece, I am going to use all of my free time to complete my best possible work at all times.

I created a new display in my classroom this year to remind my students of the high standards I set for us all in the fifth grade at our school.  I hung a metal bar above the door in my classroom along with the words “Our Bar of Excellence” and “Now Rise Above it.”  I want my students to see how truly important it is to do our best possible work and strive for excellence in everything we do.  They see this display every time they leave the classroom.  I also reference it at least once a day to remind my class to shoot for the stars.  I want them to work towards being the best version of themselves possible each and every day, in and out of the classroom.  I’ve told them many times, “I want our fifth grade class to be the bar that the other grades in our school hold themselves to.  I want you to be the students to which other teachers compare their students and advisees.”  While I know that perfection is merely an idea and not something obtainable in life, I want my students to constantly challenge themselves to do their best work in all that they do.  By holding high standards, I help my students rise to the occasion.  Instead of simply doing something to get it done, they do it to the best of their ability.  You should see their handwriting after only five weeks, it’s impeccable.  They have grown as students, thinkers, people, writers, readers, and mathematicians so much in the short time that we have been together because I’m constantly reminding them to be and do their best.  I wonder what might have happened had I not held my students to such high standards.  Would they have grown and made the improvements they did had I not had them redo work that I knew was not their best possible work?  Would we be where we are as a class right now if I had allowed my students to go through the motions and complete their work like checking off things on a To Do list?  Although this might come across as being a bit cavalier, I feel that the amazing things my students have been able to accomplish this year is a direct result of me holding them to high standards.

This past Friday was one of those special days in the classroom, where everything just sort of falls into place.  It was quite remarkable.  I was able to witness numerous examples of how holding my students to high standards has helped them to grow and develop into thoughtful, kind, caring, and diligent students.

  • As the students finally filled the Marble Jar for the first time this year earlier in the week, the students chose the theme for our first Marble Party in class on Friday.  They were so careful and creative with the ideas they brainstormed, as they want this celebration to be meaningful.  They worked hard to earn this party.  I held the standard high for earning marbles.  They needed to amaze and wow me to earn a handful of marbles.  Filling the jar was no easy feat.  So, they were mindful to try and create the coolest, most fun party ever.  What I found most spectacular about this whole party-choosing-process was how thoughtful they were.  You see, one of the students in our class recently had knee surgery and is in confined to crutches and a wheelchair.  This means that some of the more “fun” ideas that they could have chosen, were not even brought up because one of their classmates wouldn’t be able to join in on the festivities.  The students worked to develop an inclusive and what is sure to be an epic Marble Party all on their own.  My heart grew a bit bit bigger in that moment.  I am one of the luckiest teachers I know to be working with such a compassionate and considerate group of fifth graders.  Wow, was just about all I could say following that special discussion and choosing activity.  If I hadn’t spent as much time as I had helping the students see the value in and practice being kind and working together during the first few weeks of the school year, would I have seen this same scene play out?  Probably not.  Because I hold my students to high standards regarding how they treat each other and themselves, they have grown into a close-knit classroom family.
  • For our Forest Friday activity this week, I invited two local experts to come and teach the students all about the edible flora in our forest ecosystem.  What can we chow down on while we are building shelters, crafting fires, whittling wood, and having fun together in the wilderness just outside the doors of our school?  Lots of things, that I never knew were edible in the woods, are indeed things we can eat or use in various dishes or drinks.  Twigs from the Black Birch Tree, needles from the Eastern White Pine and Eastern Hemlock Trees, and Wintergreen leaves all make delicious tea.  Acorns can be leeched and ground down to create a tasty flour, while the berries of the Autumn Olive can be enjoyed right off the bush.  I learned so much from our guests.  For me though, the highlight of this activity came from observing my students.  They take so much pride in the work they do that they love showing it off to others.  They all made sure to point out the shelters they have been working on for the past few weeks while they showed our visitors around the forest.  I also asked the students a few questions regarding facts we’ve already learned about the forest, and they impressed me every time with the right answer.  “How do we remember what makes Lichen?”  I asked one of the students.  Her response, “Freddy Fungus took a liking to Alice Algae at the middle school dance.”  Our guests were so amazed with how much knowledge my students had already learned regarding the nature of the forest.  They actually asked the student if they could use that saying with future school groups.  If I didn’t expect my students to learn and retain as much knowledge as they do when we visit the forest weekly, would they have been able to wow our visitors the way they did?  I doubt it.
  • During the time when I conference with each student on Fridays regarding their effort and grades in class, I’m amazed by how well my students are already beginning to know themselves as learners and students.  They know what they need to do to improve during the nest week.  It’s astounding.  I’m always impressed by the deep conversations I have with the students regarding their growth in the fifth grade.  When conferencing with one particular student who struggled on a recent assessment in Language Arts regarding complete sentences and paragraphs, I had the student help me understand the areas of greatest challenge for her while also helping to point out the mistakes she had made.  Following our conversation on this topic, she asked me, without prompting, if she could retake the assessment.  “I know I can do better Mr. Holt.  Can I redo the test?”  This student must have thought I was having some sort of senior moment, as I sat in silent awe, mouth gaping, so proud of this student and the high standards to which she holds herself.  After a few moments, I responded, “Absolutely.”  Because my students know that they can redo any objectively graded assignment on which they did not earn grades that highlight their best possible work, I occasionally have students seeing me to redo tests or projects after or before school or during free time.  While I do hold my students accountable for their learning, they usually perform well on objectively graded tasks, as they turn in what they believe is their best possible work.  However, sometimes students are confused or make mistakes on assessments.  During those times, they can redo their work to show that they can meet and exceed the objectives being graded.  During free time on Friday, this student spent her free time working on redoing the Language Arts assessment.  Talk about high standards and growth.  Would this student have made this same choice if I didn’t allow retakes and didn’t challenge my students to hold themselves to high standards?  At this point, I think you all know the answer to that question.

If I want my students to grow incrementally as learners, thinkers, doers, scientists, readers, mathematicians, and writers in the fifth grade this year, I must hold them accountable, I must challenge them to complete only their best possible work, and I must constantly hold the standards for excellence in the fifth grade very high for my students.  I must also be a role model for them and hold myself to high standards, even if it means using my free time to revise lesson plans or rewrite the next day’s agenda on my whiteboard.  Holding the bar high helps my students to strive for greatness on a daily basis.  “Go big or go home,” a colleague once told me, and I completely agree.  If we’re not trying to grow and improve, we become stagnant ponds of, “Here’s your participation certificate and trophy just for showing up.”  No thank you.  Trophies and awards must be earned through blood, sweat, tears, dedication, practice, failure, and hard work.

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