Recently someone asked me a question about the quality of student work. "How can I get students to take their time and not just slap something down when I have them do creative activities?" My thoughts jumped immediately to the life-skill of doing your personal best. This is one of those skills I feel has been neglected in our rush to get through the curriculum. We have so much to teach and so many concepts that must be covered before the end of the school year that we end up rushing our students through their work. We tell them to do a good job and then we say, "Hurry up. Don't lag behind." There is a very fine line to be balanced between allowing students enough time to do a good job on their work and giving too much time that ends up wasted by students through dawdling and procrastination.
One way we can walk this fine line is by teaching, training, and expecting personal best from students. For many of them this is a life-skill that is not emphasized enough both at home and in the classroom. We tell students that we expect them to do a good job, but what does that mean? Also, is doing a good job the same for every student? It shouldn't be. Every student has differing ability levels, creativity, and ideas which mean that you will get a different level of work out of each. This is why I like to focus on the concept of personal best.
At the beginning of each year I go through a little spiel about my expectations and what I want to see from my students. I always take some time to talk about the life-skill of personal best. I read one of my favorite poems by Charles Osgood entitled "Pretty Good." If you are interested you can view the poem at http://www.inspiringteachers.com/classroom_resources/tips/beginning_of_the_school_year/discussing_personal_best.html. The gist of the poem is that there was a pretty good student in a pretty good school that doesn't make him work too hard. They'll take work that is pretty good. After a while everyone finds out that pretty good is really pretty bad. I use this poem to emphasize how important it is that we each do our personal best. I have to do my personal best as the teacher and I expect my students to do their personal best in all that they do.
What exactly is personal best? Well, it is going to be different for each student. If I feel that a student has given me a product that is not their personal best, I will ask him or her, "Do you believe this is your personal best?" Most of the time the student knows the truth of it and will either nod a yes or shake his or her head no. At that point I return the work to them and expect it to be done again. If it is a creative assignment, I will require students show me their product before turning it in. We talk about whether the final product represents the student's personal best. I'll probe and ask students what they think their personal best product should look like. This helps the student to see where he or she needs to improve the project or work completed. At first students are irritated with me and simply want to turn it in and get it over with. However, I stand my ground and continue the conversation and probing questions. After doing this process several times, I will start getting products that reflect each student's personal best from the start.
This same standard goes for me. If I don't do my own personal best in my teaching, how can I expect my students to put their personal best into their work? A large part of teaching is modeling. If we expect a behavior or attitude from our students, we need to consistently exhibit that same behavior and attitude ourselves. Our students know when we don't follow our own admonitions and expectations. I've even had students come up to me after a day where I "winged it" and say, "Mrs., that wasn't really your personal best today, was it?" Boy, that really gets to me. I'm rebuked and know that my students can tell when I haven't done my personal best in teaching. I feel honor bound to put my very best into the lessons and activities I plan so that students can see what personal best truly means.
If you feel you are getting substandard work from your students, take some time to talk to them about personal best. Get them to discuss what personal best looks like and feels like. Show your students some examples of work you've gotten in the past that showed personal best. Explain to them how you put your personal best into lessons and activities. Let them know that from now on you will not accept work that does not represent a student's personal best effort. They will have to work on it over and over until it is truly their personal best. At the same time, be sure you communicate the fact that each person has a different personal best. You are not looking for every project to be exactly the same. What you are looking for are students who strive to do their best, at whatever level that may be. Show consistency in expecting personal best from students and in doing your own personal best. Before long your students will catch on that it is better for them to take their time and do their best the first time around than to redo an assignment over and over. In thinking about our own classrooms, schools, and communities, we really don't want to be like the people in Charles Osgood's poem. Instead, let's strive for personal best rather than pretty good.