As an educator, I’m always looking for new ways of saying things and new methods of teaching. Due to a move, I recently finished my final lessons with a couple students who commented that they learned more and grew more than they thought they would and thanked me for my help. As touching as that was, the question that I couldn’t help but ask myself was Did I really teach them to their fullest potential…could they have grown even more?
I suppose that’s the burning question that we have as teachers. That question was in my mind when I decided on the topic for today’s article. Unlike most of the articles I will write, today's post is more a report of what other’s experience are and have been. I asked many well-respected teachers from various music disciplines across the country to fill out a survey and found some interesting consistencies that I think we can all learn from. I’ve done my best to find the intersections of their answers and have provided them below:
No, I’m not suggesting that we should be mean to our students. Yet, at some point we do have to exert our authority as teachers to direct the trajectory of our students’ learning. Every participant in the survey was asked to rate how demanding their lessons were from 1 to 10 (least to most). Not one single teacher interviewed said anything below a 7 out of 10! Their responses to questions about teaching strategies reflected this as well, with many of the strategies mentioned including student participation and instant feedback at all times, especially if the performance was below what the student’s potential was.
Almost all of the teachers surveyed mentioned compassion/passion as an important quality of the ideal teacher, asserting that we are only able to guide students when we truly understand them and where they are. We need to know what the student is capable of and truly believe that they are capable of saying what they want to say, even if they are not fully aware of what that is. This puts the responsibility of our students’ successes and failures squarely on our shoulders. Dr. Matthew McInturf, Director of Bands and the Center for Music Education at Sam Houston State University, said it best: “The only way to be a great teacher is when you assume it is your fault when the student doesn't accomplish their best.”
The second-most mentioned quality was having thorough knowledge of the subject. In addition, every teacher surveyed agreed that having projects such as recording, research, or gigging was at least somewhat important to developing ourselves as teachers (About 67% said it was very important). We have a duty to ourselves and our students to always be learning and consistently improving ourselves, so that we are leading by example, not by just words.
Multiple teachers from our experienced panel mentioned that they have seen younger, less experienced teachers lack the confidence to stop rehearsal or a lesson to address issues that they know are there. We should have the confidence to be demanding in the moment, but it is also important to be understanding at the same time. Dr. Jan Berry Baker, Assistant Professor of Saxophone at Georgia State University, strives to “combine rigorous instruction in a nurturing environment, reaching and challenging all of [her] students, which means learning about them and what helps them to develop their own proficiency, understanding, and creativity.” As a former student of hers, I can attest to the incredibly effective learning that balanced fostered within me.
Many of the other teachers also set a high priority on teaching students to teach themselves, demanding that students develop the awareness to find their own creative identity, instead of mimicking the sound or opinions of their teacher. I’ve heard many respected teachers independently say that their goal is to teach so well that they are no longer needed, and I think this approach is ultimately the most effective way to go about teaching any subject.
83% of teachers said that their approach to teaching required very specific lesson planning. The other 17% said that a moderate amount of lesson planning was required in their approach, meaning that not one single well respected teacher goes into a situation without having planned and set goals beforehand.
Furthermore, every teacher interviewed agreed that having a “teaching moment,” or the proverbial lightbulb switching on, is absolutely crucial to developing our students. The majority of these teachers have a teaching style that leads their students to experience these moments on their own, while about 17% of the teachers surveyed plan for these moments to happen in every lesson. At the end of the day, whether we specifically plan for them or not, these moments are a result of everything mentioned above. Passion, understanding, and a clear balance of demanding instruction and nurturing encouragement all combine to create conditions under which our students can experience breakthroughs and learn new concepts that will build upon each other.
Our pedagogy is only as effective as our preparation. We have to be passionate, knowledgeable, demanding, and encouraging all at once during every minute we teach. This includes developing ourselves as musicians, scholars, and teachers. We have to create our own teaching style and be daring in our pursuits, modeling the techniques and scholarship that we wish to inspire in our students. In the words of Dr. Frederick Hemke, Professor Emeritus at Northwestern University: "Be the very finest you can be as a person, a scholar, and a musician. Without those qualities, you will never be able to teach anyone anything."