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Hitting Home

Great expectations and 30 minutes can achieve results


My teaching partner, Pattie Nelson, is a prime example of a 100-percenter. She comes to work every day with an inexhaustible supply of energy. She puts time and thought preparing for every day, and she takes her role as a teacher of music very seriously. These are the attributes that she has control over, and she brings it, every day. On top of that, she is a talented musician, a smart person and has a great natural ability to connect with students.

When she is in front of students, she demands a great effort. It's impossible to say that every student in the room is firing at 100 percent, but it's a great bet that all of them are working beyond their 70 percent "cruise-control" setting.

The problem is that, the nature of the job that Pattie and I do, she's only in front of the kids for 30 minutes, twice a week. Now, for some of them, that's enough - they go off on their own and work and stay above 70 percent (in their music) most of the time.

But, let's be real, they're 10 and 11 years old - most of them downshift pretty quickly, and by the time lunch recess is over, they don't even remember where they left their instrument. On top of that, if we consider our "hollow person," 11-year olds grow at an amazing rate: a big dinner, a good night of sleep, and the hollow person wakes up larger than they were yesterday, and 80 percent of yesterday's person is only 70 percent of today's.

That's not to say that teachers at the younger ages don't have influence, or even to say that teachers who get very little instructional time have little influence. But, I would submit, the influence of the younger ages and the part-time teachers is more one of teaching students where their floor is - that point at which they can get away with not giving any additional effort.

Let me put that in real world terms: There is nothing more important for a young student than to know that there is a point at which a teacher is going to call them out for their lack of effort - especially students from difficult circumstances, who often are looked at by adults with pity and indulgence.

Teachers like Pattie Nelson push those students to, for at least 30 minutes at a time, work at the same level as or higher than everybody else in the room.

But it is with older students, mostly-formed hollow people students, where teachers have the real opportunity to push them to exceed their own expectations.

The staff that put together "The Little Mermaid" worked with those kids four hours a day for six weeks to put that production together - that's a lot of opportunities to ask a student to give a little more. And, done consistently over that stretch of time, a student will change their expectations for themselves - it can't help but happen. And, when they receive that applause on opening night? That's like the firing process that turns a piece of hard clay into beautiful piece of pottery.

It locks it in.

What of coaches and teachers who get to work with the same students every day for hours for many years? These are the people we hear the great stories about: the coach who took his junior high player off the streets and gave him a home, some clothes and a purpose; the teacher who recognized a hidden talent; the principal who made a kid sit in her office every day to get the grades to stay eligible. Kids begin to grow towards being 100-percenters with that direction.

Pattie Nelson is, sadly, retiring at the end of this year. Her passion for her students and music will be missed, but the legacy of her teaching will carry on. Those 100-percenters tend to do that to the world.

Michael Alcorn is a teacher and writer who lives in Arvada with his wife and three children. His novels are available at MichaelJAlcorn.com

Michael Alcorn


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