Understanding Excellence – Part I

I was facilitating an interactive session with school going students under the banner of ‘Shikshak Prabhodhini’ – a project where teachers are being trained to mentor exceptional students. We were discussing ‘emotions’.  A young girl of eighth standard, an aspiring singer, was discussing with me her emotions before a performance, in front of about 80 other students. We talked about the ‘Result’ and the ‘Process’. The ‘result’ was the end of the performance when the audience would clap and appreciate. The ‘Process’ was the actual performance that would lead to this result. We concluded that before starting the actual performance we need to make the ‘result’ ‘out of focus’ that is blurred and bring the actual performance in sharp focus … by sharp focus we meant, we will now focus on every minute of the performance… minute by minute.

The girl visualized aloud the exact moment of starting the performance. She described it as if in a trance, I was helping her to shape her responses … Here she was, as steady as a rock … breathing rhythmically..  Image   of her guru in front of her eyes … and the only overriding thought, I am going to do my best…

“   And who are you? …  what are you? …  at this moment? …”

“I am music …” pat came the reply

“A moment of excellence is born” I said.

It was a very strong experience emotionally for all of us present. A rare, delightful insight into an experience called ‘excellence’ … It was exhilarating in an enlightened manner.

At times, the experiential truth  is so strong that is difficult to catch it in words, however, if one has to consolidate the emotional insight into a  blinding design of wisdom, one has to fall back on words again.

So what is excellence?

I do not think excellence has one single definition. In the future segments of this communication, I will explore different   ways by which this theme can be understood. Here is the first one.

Let us take for example, a popular skill amongst students such as   ‘orator’s skill’.  Translated in school-reality, it means participating and winning elocution and debating competitions.

A student that is generally chosen by teachers for developing this skill is an expressive and communicative one who also has a ‘pleasant’ and ‘smart ‘disposition’.

Suppose there is   an elocution competition and five topics are given, out of which she has to select one. The mentor here will ask her to think and talk about each one of the topics  …  what are the thoughts that come to her mind when she reads topics such as , ‘Protecting My Earth’ or ‘The Life and Times of  Shivaji Maharaj’ .  She is encouraged to explore each topic; in her own way. She has to just go on talking about each topic. The mentor listens keenly.

“Can you now make a choice?” the mentor puts the question unconstructively.  She needs to give her own explanation why she is deciding to opt for a particular topic. If she is confused, the mentor helps her to explore her confusion (please note, not to clear it).

When she makes a choice she has to give justification for it. Having heard that; the mentor poses certain relevant queries regarding her choice. What   is the most important aspect of the topic that she has liked? What according to her is the part of the topic that she may find difficult? If she has ‘liked’ two topics what is one consideration that will help her to choose the one that she has chosen?

At the end, the mentor and student will decide a time interval where the student has to think of all the points raised and come back with a decision.

“But sir, I have already made up my mind” suppose the student says.

“Yes, I appreciate … I want you now to tell me one by one why and how you discarded the other topics. I am interested in knowing how you did it…”

“How I did it? I just did it” student.

“Let us explore, how you could have done it… I am taking a paper and writing all topics. I want you to write all the thoughts that came to your mind … that could help …”

The mentor helps the student to identify consciously the thinking process that went behind her decision.

The topic is now selected.

The mentor now motivates the student to gather information on the topic. The mentor shares the spirit of enquiry, exploration and excitement.

Having adequate ‘database’ the mentor helps the student to evolve the structure of presentation. The structure is not imposed. Any deviation from standard procedure of delivering a speech, is respected and discussed. The mundane use of quotations, use of lofty words, adult and literary phrases is questioned. The originality of expression is encouraged.

A draft is now ready.

The mentor and the student now discuss the style of presentation. The mentor does not impose his or any other’s style on the student.   They make a list of ‘impressive orators’ that they have observed   in media as well as in public life. The student makes note of the qualities that she would like to imbibe from each one of them.

The written draft is taken as a guideline rather than a script.

While rehearsing   the speech, placement of all phrases and points is discussed. The contents are rearranged, realigned and the impact is noted.

Then the student is given different scenarios and told to present the speech

  • Student is the first speaker
  • Last speaker
  • All the points covered by the previous speaker
  • Distracted audience
  • Tired judges
  • Interruption because of electricity / technical faults.

Each performance is discussed.

Then the ‘emotions’ during preparation and rehearsal are discussed. Boredom, anxiety, satisfaction…Each emotion is named and each emotion is acknowledged. The emotions that will help the performance are identified. How can the student continue to generate these helpful emotions? … different strategies are planned by which this can be done.

The issue of ‘ownership’ of performance is now discussed. This ‘ownership’ can be burdening or enjoyable, the way you look at it.

On the day of the performance, the mentor and the student spend a short ‘exclusive time’ together.

After the performance the mentor and the student discuss pros and cons of her own performance. Rather than saying “your delivery was too fast”, it is put as “These were the sentences where your speed was fast” Rather than saying “you need to work on your eye-to-eye contact” it is put as, “you need to cover periodically all corners of the audience by your eyes”.

After the performance is discussed, both mentor and student sincerely sit through some other contestants’ speeches and discuss those. Slowly they evolve a detailed format of performance appraisal which is kept as a record by the student.

After the result of the competition, the mentor explores resultant emotions with the student. They decide on their next goal.

As the time progresses, the student starts becoming more responsible and empowered and the mentor maintains a meaningful presence throughout this journey.

The student now grows confident and starts exploring the experience further. The mentor now focuses on ‘involvement’, ‘commitment’, ‘process satisfaction’ and ‘result satisfaction’ which are psychologically more sophisticated terms. The discussion revolves around, what is the ‘self- talk’ at such times and how different types of self-talk can be either helpful or harmful; how the student can exercise her choice to choose the most helpful self-talk.

As the string of performances continues and each is utilized as a ‘learning’ experience, there will come an experience the mentor is watching for… a memorable moment when the student and the speech being delivered becomes so synchronized that it becomes ONE. The student is at her best at that moment.

This moment is again shared and explored by both. It is a magical moment. A touch of brilliance.             Now, the mentor and the student keep on working further to make this moment appear often as well as how they can make it ‘better’. Here better, means more meaningful, more memorable, more intense…

And slowly, the moments of excellence start trickling… then flowing… Naturally … In a rhythm. The student has discovered her own way of expression.

The mentor watches with his ever-watchful eyes her track-record of glories with moist eyes, with all the memories gathering one by one in his mind… “There was a day when I helped her to make her choice” he says in his mind and smiles.

Dr Anand Nadkarni

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