Together we stand, divided we fall.

We are a society that thrives on competition. We compete in school for grades; we compete in our professional lives to achieve positions and titles; and we compete in our daily life patterns for everything from a faster lane on the freeway to a winning number in the local lottery. We like to win, to get ahead, to maneuver ourselves to a better vantage point. Perhaps Darwin’s proposed theory in his popular writing ‘The Origin of the Species’ clearly evidences our competitive spirit, our ongoing, ever-present striving to get to the front of the pack. It is powerful motivational fuel for humans, but like any energy force, competition can be used in a positive or negative fashion.

Observing the positive enthusiasm generated by competition in athletics, other disciplines have quickly jumped on the bandwagon. Our schools now have science fairs, 4-H shows, debate clubs, essay contests, and music festivals recognizing the achievements of an array of talents ranging from a flute solo to a 400-piece marching band.

The good news is all of these organized competitive forums have created much excitement; however, we must be clearly aware that there can be a down side to the win-at-all-costs attitude. As educators, the cautionary responsibility rests directly on our shoulders. Take heed, for the instant gratification of first place can become a haunting detriment when it alone is the only measure of accomplishment.

When we ask students to “go the extra mile” by committing their valuable time to learning, we must focus on the intrinsic benefits they will gain as a result of their investment, rather than the extrinsic rewards that come as a by-product of their dedication. If “getting first place” is more important than the joy of an inspired performance (whatever the adjudication outcome) then it is time to do some philosophical prioritizing. Is the goal to add more trophies of achievement to the shelves in the front lobby or to stretch the students to a new level of communication? The growth of the students must stand as the top priority in every instance.

Over the years, the ongoing debate about the value of competition has caused many educators to avoid any aspect of adjudication/evaluation. Much like the ostrich with its head in the sand, this may be an overreaction or escape; it may also be an unrealistic approach to preparing our students to address the realities of life. At the same time, if everything is couched in a competitive framework, the need to beat the fellow student takes precedence over the personal growth and development gained by a solid program of healthy self-discipline. The key to a successful balance is achieved through the careful guidance of the teacher. Instead of dangling the proverbial competitive carrot in front of the students, we might be better served if we rewarded and recognized their successful habits and patterns.

For example:

  • Resolving a problem. Many students are quick to recognize or identify problems, but there are few who will come up with a resolution. Those who do should be put in the spotlight and given responsibilities within the program.
  • Making decisions and taking action. There are many who “wait to be told what to do,” then do it remarkably well. Look for those who go one step beyond and are willing to take a stand, make a choice, and follow through on their decisions; herein lie the leaders of tomorrow.
  • Loyalty. In today’s world, loyalty is a treasured attribute. Competition is the test of one’s loyalty, not when we win, but when we lose. To avoid the “If we can’t win, I quit!” attitude, reinforce the character strength of loyalty.
  • Cooperation. Nothing is impossible when a group of individuals chooses to make cooperation the theme of the working atmosphere. Alternately, it is almost impossible to move any group forward when they are constantly competing to gain the upper hand on their fellow students.

It is apparent that we needn’t beat another person or persons to win; we simply need to improve ourselves to experience the intrinsic victory that is a result of learning, growing, and becoming. To this end, let us continue to support one another and realize the value of competition is merely a stepping stone for our students to witness theirs who share a similar passion. When all is said and done, we must band together if we ever hope to attain true victory.

This article is adapted from the book “Everyday Wisdom for Inspired Teaching” by GIA Publications, and reproduced with permission from Tim Lautzenheiser

Tim Lautzenheiser

Written By Tim Lautzenheiser

Tim Lautzenheiser presently serves as Vice President of Education for Conn-Selmer, Inc. His career involves ten years of successful college band directing at Northern Michigan University, the University of Missouri, and New Mexico State University. His books, produced by G.I.A. Publications, Inc., continue to be bestsellers in the educational world. He is also co-author of popular band method, Essential Elements, and is the Senior Educational Consultant for Hal Leonard, Inc.