Rigorous, Not Ruthless: Instruction That Creates Results

Anxious, I awaited the results of my audition.  I wonder alongside my fellow classmates, “Did I get into the University of Georgia Honor Band?” For months I practiced, hoping for a shot. Then my private flute instructor walked over with a puzzled look on her face, stating “Laura, you got in. You were placed in the honor band.” I was so proud and happy that my hard work had paid off! But, then my flute teacher brought me out of my excitement suddenly by stating indignantly, “There must be a mistake. You are not a good enough player to be in the honor band. My other student, Tina, did not get accepted, but you did. I am leaving to speak with the judges immediately!” She then stormed off to check the scores only to be sorely disappointed that I had indeed received the honored status.

“Wow, thank you for that great pat on the back,” I thought sarcastically. Although a bit hurt, I was not surprised by her remarks. At the point of that audition, I had been with her for about six years. She was an excellent teacher, and other musicians revered her as the best of the best, but she got thing really wrong, she mistook rigor for ruthlessness.

Jim Collins, the author of several leadership books including Good to Great, Great by Choice, and How The Mighty Fall describes the difference between the two concepts, “To be ruthless means hacking and cutting, especially in difficult times, or wantonly firing people without any thoughtful consideration. To be rigorous means consistently applying exacting standards at all times and at all levels, especially in upper management. To be rigorous, not ruthless, means that the best people need not worry about their positions and can concentrate fully on their work.” At first, it may be difficult to decipher how this statement applies to the world of education, but let’s examine it further.

My flute instructor often berated my efforts. I believe she did this not to be mean, but in hopes to motivate me to play better. She was indeed ruthless in her attempts. And, yes, as a twelve year old, it worked. She scared me into playing harder and longer, but what was the intrinsic motivator? Well, in truth, her ruthless teaching style only motivated me to work hard enough so that I would not get yelled at or scorned. This type of teaching style worked for a few years, but as I reached 15 years, I began to grow tired of her insults, and I just didn’t care anymore. It was no longer a motivator for me. Yes, I practiced, but only because of my own desire to play, not to improve under her guidance. Fear created by teachers is a short term motivator, that does not procure a love of learning. Eventually, it only creates frustration and resentment. The result for many is low performance, and a disdain among those students for academic learning.

On the other hand, as a teacher seeking excellence, I have witnessed the positive results that come from a rigorous academic climate that is also safe and edifying for students. The following is a quick compare/contrast of the two styles.

The similarities and differences between a rigorous teacher and ruthless teacher:

Similarities: 
Both teachers want high academic achievement. They want their students to perform, and require high standards to be met.

Differences:
Rigorous teacher:  The rigorous teacher knows that she has set the standards high, and empathizes with the student, but teaches the student to persevere through it, realizing that it is tough. The rigorous teacher never gives up on the student, and is patient with the learning process. The rigorous teacher reflects on her teaching, always knowing that her instruction may need to be changed depending on the situation or individual child.

Ruthless teacher: The ruthless teacher knows that she has set the standards high, but is impatient with the process. The ruthless teacher wants to give the instruction and expects immediate results. If the student does not perform well, it is obviously his/her fault, and there is just no hope for this poor child. The ruthless teacher does not reflect often on his/her teaching, because it is not the instruction at fault. The fault lies with the inadequacy of the student’s learning capability.


In closing, I do believe, as teachers seeking excellence, we should constantly strive for rigorous work with exacting standards every day in the classroom. Too settle for anything less would be damaging. However, we must also teach our students perseverance, coaching them to know that academic excellence is tough, but that they are capable and bright enough to achieve greatness. Academic excellence will never be created from fear or ruthless behavior.

The following is a clip from the Teaching Channel about the importance of teaching peseverance:

Teaching Channel
https://www.teachingchannel.org/videos/teaching-learning-perseverance

The following is the audio version of the book, Good to Great by Jim Collins.

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