"So, Diane, tell me - is Ellen in your top three?"
Ellen, a seventh grader, was a new transfer student. She'd come from the prestigious preparatory division of a big-city conservatory. (Her parents had told me that in their first phone call.) She'd only been with me a few months. Her dad, a stock broker, was anxious to know how she compared to my other students.
"Hmm...to be honest, I wouldn't know how to answer that question," I replied honestly. "I don't think about my students in that way."
He wasn't discouraged.
"Well, if you rated them on a scale of 1 to 100, what kind of score would you give her? And how would that compare with your other students?" Clearly he thought I hadn't understood the question.
"I'm sorry, but I can't do that. Each student has their own strengths and challenges. I don't compare them in that way. It's like comparing apples and oranges. They aren't things I can compare. Each student is a different person with their own unique traits.."
"But, if you WERE to compare them," he persisted, "Where would Ellen be? Is she one of the best?"
"I don't compare them. And I won't."
I wasn't surprised when Ellen decided to go away to boarding school for high school. With a Dad like that, I would have gotten as far away as I could have too.
Looking back, though, I realize there was a time when I would have eagerly answered his questions. I would have known exactly how each of my students measured up against each other. I used to think about it all the time. I used to think, rather coldly, about what each student lacked. How each one could be better. Not how I could teach them better. Just how they could be better. As if who they each were was a fixed commodity. I wasn't thinking about getting to know each student and their unique quirks and gifts. No, I spent time measuring each of my current students against the ideal student in my head. Never mind that there never was and would never be that ideal student.
I learned, mostly the hard way, that those students I found "lacking" were only lacking something in my own mind. When I finally realized that each one of them was doing their best, (and that even the most gifted students came with a their own strengths and weaknesses) I started asking myself a different set of questions.
What if I did my best with each and every one of them? What if I taught them each as a unique individual? What if I became more interested, not less, when something was difficult for a student? What if I became a teacher? A real live teacher?
So I did.
Not only did this make me happier, my students miraculously started to improve. When I believed in them instead of comparing them, they knew it. They could feel the difference.
In these days of standardized testing and music exams, it's easy to keep a ruler handy.
Rulers were meant for measuring things, not people. As a teacher, the last thing you should do is think of your gorgeous students as things.
So go ahead.
Throw out your ruler.
If these ideas interest you or even make you uncomfortable, you might find it helpful to read these books. (These links will take you to Amazon where you can take a peek inside all these books before buying them.)