The morning after the 2015 Oscars I saw a tweet from a UK Head Teacher suggesting that if Lady Gaga and some students stopped doing 'stupid stuff' they can be great. This had been shared a couple of hundred times across the teaching community. It's a funny comparison and I am a fan of the tweeter... but something about this one frustrated me.
It's a side-punch. If Lady Gaga did more of this she can be great. I'll ask the question: great for who? If she was not already great, the "one and only" even, she would never have had that chance to delight so many of us with her beautiful performance on the weekend. Bravo Lady Gaga! The only lady who can surprise with a conventional show!
This is worth a thought; how does anyone become the one and only? There are millions of singers and so many unknowns who could, if picked to sing at the Oscars, hold that stage and international audience just as Lady Gaga did. We have millions of talented performers, teachers, writers and scientists, yet so few take the next step to become an artist as well. Lady Gaga took that step and did it knowing full-well that many people would find what she does 'stupid'.
Here is the big secret: all it takes to become the "one and only" in your field is to be true to yourself in your work. Why? Because you are the only 'you' that ever was and ever will be. Those who are afraid to show themselves become "one of the many" following the same instructions (and the Oscars stage ain't coming their way). But it's obvious why people hide. Why risk public criticism and ridicule? It's safer to wear a mask by sticking with what's conventional, right?
I wonder how many students first learn to hide themselves in school. How many adults recall that one-time they did what lights them up inside, only to be told it's stupid. It just takes a hint and a student might stop, then try to forget their joy over something so stupid and get serious about being conventional instead.
When J.R.R. Tolkien was a student he'd write poems in made up languages. What a strange thing to do. What a waste of time! How's a teacher supposed to grade that work? Many years later he created Middle Earth as a home for his fantastic constructed languages. Think of the hours of joy his stories give to millions of people. Think how easily that childish interest could have been stamped out in his youth with just one word blurted out in frustration: stupid!
Teachers may choose to inspire, mentor, guide or coach their students in their own unique way. This is how a teacher becomes an artist. But teachers who take it upon themselves to judge student work based on their own tastes are, and I'm putting this lightly, doing a disservice to their students, their community and this world. In the name of looking forwards, this is what I'd like to say...
Learning to differentiate between a friendly critic and a fearful skeptic might be one of life's most valuable lessons. Listen to the friendly critic who knows something about your field and sees your potential. Their words are not to knock you down, but to improve your awareness so that you can build forwards. Talk with this person.
But sometimes you'll happen to meet a fearful skeptic. This person thinks they have your best interest at heart by guiding you away from those things that light you up inside. Be sympathetic, because someone else probably did this to them a long time ago. This person might be your teacher who gives your work a 'D' for reasons you find completely irrelevant. Take your 'D' and thank them for their time. Your work is not for them. Go and find the people who light up when they see your work, the same way you do when you create it.
Perhaps a little openness about your restrictions would be wildly helpful. For example; "This has to be grade 'C' because the spelling is off and the points you make are not on-topic, so it doesn't prove your understanding of the course material... but, listen, the insightfulness you show in this work and the courage you drew on to put this together transcends all grades. I'm excited to see how you take this forward. What's your plan?"
Good luck students and teachers,