Monday, January 24, 2022

Reflections on Teaching
by David Gilfix

If you want to really piss off a teacher, here’s what you should do. Let’s say you are introduced to someone at a dinner party. “What do you do?” you ask. “Oh, I’m a teacher,” she responds. Whereupon (and please take notes) you should casually say something like, “Oh, that’s wonderful,” and then - here it comes - “When I retire, I would like to do a little teaching.”   

Try it. You might not get an immediate response, but if you are attuned to facial expressions, voice tonality, and things like that, you will see that it works every time.

But why?

Time for a digression. Shortly after college, I went to New York City to perform, study, and teach classical guitar. Most of my students were adults who had voluntarily chosen to pay me to teach them classical guitar (yes, I know that “voluntarily chosen” is redundant, but I really wanted emphasis here). Many were advanced, some were beginners, but all of them wanted to learn. I never had any discipline problems. I rarely had motivational problems. If a student was unmotivated, he or she would quit. Easy. The entire lesson involved teaching musicianship, guitar, and performance techniques. The main way I prepared for each student was by studying, practicing, or reviewing the music they were learning. To be a better teacher, I had to be a better musician. The more I knew, the more they knew. Fun.

And so unlike the experiences of most public school teachers!

Teaching in a school is not about teaching, at least not in the way that non-teachers who are contemplating a fulfilling retirement activity assume it must be. In any class, there will be a mix of students who are genuinely interested in your topic as well as students who most definitely are not there on their own volition. They attend because they have to be there, because their school requires it, because they believe their future requires it,  because the State requires it, or because they couldn’t find anything else to fit into their schedule. 

Teaching in a school also involves navigating through a complex labyrinth of disparate student concerns, including interpersonal relationships between classmates, absenteeism, medical and emotional issues, food allergies and predilections, non English-fluent students, family economic challenges, learning strengths and weaknesses, behavioral peculiarities, and - especially with younger students - transportation (it’s not good to put children on the wrong bus going home).

It's also about learning.

But unless you can make your way through the labyrinth of these other issues, learning will suffer. Actually, even if you do make it through the labyrinth of other issues, learning will almost always be compromised, because it takes time to go through the labyrinth. Which is why school learning is always a compromise.

But that doesn’t mean it isn’t of value. Sometimes the matters compromising progress in one area are actually of equal importance to the primary goal.

Which begs the question, “What should be the primary goal of a teacher?” 

At a conference early in my career, a veteran music teacher remarked, “I just want my students to love music.” I remember thinking that this goal was facile, perhaps even lazy. What about learning melody, rhythm, form, intonation, beat, dynamics, reading, listening skills, instruments, improvisation, performance technique, composition (and so much more)? Now, as I near the end of my own teaching career, I can better appreciate what she knew.

Teaching in public schools is not so much about what or even how. It is about “why.” Can you provide the student a compelling reason why he or she should be learning your class? If so, you can overcome any how - meaning any methodology, and you can overcome any what, meaning any curriculum. Your “what” will always be insufficient; when you choose to teach “X”, then you have chosen not to teach “Y”. Your methodology will always be incomplete; you, the music teacher, will never have enough time to apply Orff and Kodaly and Dalcroze and Solfege methods. 

Fortunately, there is no reason to stress over those limitations. The simple truth is that we teachers are not nearly as important as we think. Whatever students don’t learn from us, they can learn from someone else. Or they might not learn it at all - and their lives will be fine. Or they will learn it and then most will soon forget much of it - and their lives will still be fine.

As I think back over my career, I can say categorically that my greatest successes occured when I prioritized the students' love of the topic over their actual skills and performance achievements. That is when they learned the most. Conversely, my biggest teaching regrets happened when I pushed the achievement of students' skill development and performance level over their actual experience of enjoying the music. That is when they learned the least (and enjoyed it the least, too). Fortunately, students are not that fragile. I hope and believe that students who suffered from my rare abuse of tiger-mom teaching methodologies quickly recovered when I regained my senses.

The great educator and hero, Janusz Korczak, once wrote that children are not future adults; they are people. Yes, young people, but still people with the full range of complicated emotions, ambitions, identity challenges, traumas, insecurities, passions, predilections, talents, and weaknesses as adults. Teachers, like parents, sometimes can make the mistake of treating the childhood years as preparation time only. We forget that for a child, now is their real life. We want them to learn how to write, excel at math, or perform music like virtuosos, but they could be more concerned about a problem with a good friend (just as we would be). And so, we bemoan their deprioritization of our particular teaching subject as if they don’t really understand its importance to their future life. To which they might respond that we don’t really understand the importance of them. Now.

And this is the challenge that every teacher faces, every day, every class, and with every student throughout their entire careers. 

It is nothing like teaching classical guitar to adult students. Nor is it like teaching young adults whatever non-educational profession you might have mastered during your working career. Certainly, if you want to do that, I applaud you. People who want to learn your profession will be well served. And if you want to do “a little teaching” in a public school when you retire, I applaud you for that, too.

Except that it won’t be “a little,” and you will be doing a lot more than just “teaching,” in the traditional sense. So, expect to be exhausted. 

But if you stay with it long enough, then you might accept another simple truth. We teachers are a lot more important than we might think. Just not in the way many of us believe. Imagine if all teachers had to take a Hippocratic oath: “Above all else do no harm.” How many of us could say categorically that we never violated that oath? Not I. We have all, on occasion, diminished certain students’ passion for learning. But on the whole, if we have helped even a little bit to inspire in our students a love of learning, then our influence will extend long beyond the classes that we taught. 

And our legacy will be their continued learning long after they have left our classes. 

As I look back on my own career, it is this that I hope I did well.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Making the Grade; Leaving a Legacy in Lexington

This article was published in the Lexington Minuteman newspaper last year.  Mr. Leonard has since retired.

Jeffrey Leonard, band director at Lexington High School in Massachusetts, recently announced plans to retire after thirty-five years of teaching. A past recipient of Lexington’s “Teacher of the Year” award, Leonard leaves a long legacy of students grateful to his inspirational musical education and for whom music remains an essential component of their adult lives.  While speaking at the annual Massachusetts Music Educators Association conference, Mr. Leonard discussed his out-of-the-box approach to grading. Non-music teachers would do well to listen.

“People think that band is an easy subject because many students get an ‘A’ grade,” Leonard remarked. “It isn’t easy at all; I make them earn it.” Leonard explained that before every concert, he has students play their instrumental parts into a digital recorder. Then he listens and assesses.  To be fair, he doesn’t listen to the entire recording. Often he fast-forwards to the challenging parts. If the students can play those, he assumes that they can play the rest, too.  

But what if they are having difficulties? Fellow-teachers, please take note: Leonard explains how he tells his students “this music is too beautiful for anyone not to do ‘A’ level work.” But he assures his students that he will work with them to help them until they learn it.  

And then he does. Not only does he work with his students, but he has set up a student leader system in which more advanced students provide musical assistance, too. If the students learn their parts before the upcoming concert, or demonstrate significant improvement, then they will get their ‘A’ regardless of how poorly they might have performed it during the initial recording assessment. The goal is not to be the first to learn it well; it is simply to learn it well.

Because the music is too beautiful for anyone not to do ‘A’ level work.

Which is almost the opposite of how most teachers grade.

Most teachers average their test and quiz grades according to some formula that, they believe, accurately reflects student performance. Wonderful.  But how does that score actually help the student? If students perform poorly on a test, there is little incentive for them to improve in that area. From the student’s perspective, it is a punitive number and a done deal with no upside. In effect, it’s a de-motivator. (Now, onto the newest topic, and get ready for the next test).

Certainly, tests do motivate some students to study.  However, for many smart students who happen to learn more slowly than the teacher’s timetable, the typical assessment approach not only is a disincentive to mastering the material but ultimately short-circuits their love and confidence in learning.

But what if teachers adopted the Jeffrey Leonard method? Imagine if a math, history, science, or English teacher told his students, this material is too beautiful for you not to do ‘A’ level work. What if the teacher then committed to working with that student, or utilizing more advanced student leaders to help the student?  “You will have to work hard, but if you learn the material, you will get your ‘A’.”  

Leonard’s approach is consistent with the way we evaluate many real life, non-academic activities.  We seek highly qualified surgeons, engineers, writers, artists, and teachers regardless of how long it might have taken them to develop their expertise. If they spent more time studying and exploring their craft, we celebrate their commitment and effort. Certainly, nobody ever walks out of a great concert because the soloist spent more years working on the piece than someone else.

The question is whether the goal of assessment in today’s education system is to help students improve or to simply generate a score that indicates which students learn the material the fastest.

Jeffrey Leonard is beloved by his students partly because he understands that assessments should be used to help students master the material rather than to penalize them for not mastering it fast enough. If he gives out many ‘A’s, it is because his students have earned them. Because they wanted to. Because he convinced them that the subject is too beautiful not to learn well.  

This is his legacy.

Any teacher who understands this, deserves an ‘A,’ too -- regardless of how long it takes them to learn it.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Weighing-in on 5 of the Most Pressing Issues of the Day

Dear Readers,

In past columns I have tried hard to research and fully thrash out one perspective of a complex issue.  You will get none of that today.  Instead, here is my short 'take' on five really, really important issues that everyone has been talking about (I think).  


Let’s start with the biggest story of the year.  It has been mostly resolved, thank goodness. Yet, there are still lingering questions.  Like why was it the biggest story of the year?  Fear not, I have the answer.  Ready?

Football is fun, and anything to do with football is fun.  And lots of people found it really fun to make up clever double entendres about Tom Brady’s, ahem, balls.  Besides, reading about truly important, horrific stories like the onslaught of ISIS is depressing.  

Anyway, here is a simple solution to avoid any more deflating-football controversies for those of you who are intent on taking the fun out of the news:  

Allow each team to inflate their football as much as they want, but insist that they use the same ball for the entire game.  Here is what would happen:  Each team would default to a similar level of air pressure.   


If the ball is too deflated, it would compromise the distance it could be kicked or the speed it could be thrown.  On the other hand, if the ball were too inflated, it would compromise the quarterback’s control or the receiver’s ability to catch it.  So take away the rules and each team will self-regulate the football pressure just fine on their own.  

End of problem.   

Let’s go to another big issue, shall we?  


What kind of food should you eat?  Whatever you want!  It’s a free country, right?  Oh sure, we could have a long in-depth discussion about what is the best food to eat if your goal is to maximize your health.  But that wouldn't be any fun, and besides nobody would listen.  Any author of diet books worth his weight (in salt) knows that people will only follow your advice if you can regurgitate "studies" that prove that the bad food you eat is really good for you.  But don't worry, no regurgitating is allowed here.

Instead, as a public service, I would like to share with you a simple method for perceiving the eating experience that should simplify your food choices for the rest of your life.  I call it The Gilfix Food Grid.

Please note the chart below:


Like eating
Hate eating
Like having eaten


Hate having eaten



Let’s start with box “C” These are foods that taste great but make you feel awful afterwards, like hotdogs at a baseball game.   

Box “B,” on the other hand, is food that taste awful but makes you feel great after eating, like kale without the seasoning.  This would include any kind of food that is healthy but repugnant to your palate.  

Box “D” is food that is both unhealthy and untasty, like two-week old chicken covered with mold.  Don’t worry about these foods; you’ll never eat them unless you are feeling suicidal.   

Finally, Box “A” is foods that are both healthy -- so you feel great after eating -- and tasty -- so you enjoy them while eating.  Obviously, these are the foods we all should be eating most.

But what if the foods you ‘like having eaten’ because you think they are good for you are really bad for you?  Ah, a very good question!  Of course, in that situation you will still “like” having eaten but your health will decline.  However, you will not attribute your declining health to your diet, so you will stay happy.  

Regardless, the Gilfix Food Grid will help you in your food choices for the rest of your life.

Let’s move along.


Take those Doritos. Just take them and walk out of the store.

What? That's dishonest!

Oh great, now I have to deal with honesty? Well let me ask you something: You know that nobody is watching and you know that the surveillance cameras aren't working, right?

Yeah, but -

Shhh. You're in a rush and you're hungry for junk food. Just take it.

But that's dishonest.

There you go again. Look!  What if I can guarantee you that no one will press charges even if they find out.  Hmm?  You know, everyone does it. (Besides, the Doritos company is rich and doesn’t need your money).

I just can't do it! I wasn't raised that way.

Oh great. I found me a modern day Horatio Alger, Richie Cunningham! Hey listen, I've got just one more question for you.  Have you ever copied a CD that you did not buy?

Huh?  But that’s different.  


Absolutely! Oh sure!  It costs hundreds of thousands of dollars, sometimes millions of dollars, to create a professional music album, and many people contribute their time and expertise including the composers, arrangers, performers, producers, recording specialists, and marketing group (everyone knows that).   But so what?  Let’s face it, copying CDs and downloading music illegally is widespread because everyone knows that copying isn’t really stealing.  Right??

Of course!  Taking a bag of Doritos isn’t really stealing either.  I mean, you’re just going to eat them. 

And now, another important issue ...


Everybody needs a cause.  Mine is to help those anti-steroids enforcers in sports find a new cause that is more worthy of their time and energy.     

Why am I for steroids?  Well first, they help athletes who were not born with top athletic physiques.  Second, most of the arguments against them are really flawed.

Superiority in sports is mostly about luck of the gene pool.  Think back to your school days.  Do you remembers that kid, or a few kids, who were better than everyone else in whatever sport they were playing?  These athletic stars didn’t work harder than everyone else, they were just better naturally.  But why give nature the final say?   Those who were born with great sports physiques didn’t do anything to deserve their luck.  Steroids help to even the playing field.

By the way, I am only advocating that adult athletes be allowed to make their own decisions about steroids.

But steroids are unhealthy.  Sports are supposed to improve your health, not to cause health problems.

Ah, cut it out!  Boxing and football tend to cause brain damage, and car and motorcycle racing cause heart damage (race car drivers  have a nasty habit of dying in crashes - which is definitely bad for the heart); hockey causes irreparable teeth damage; and sumo wrestling is known to cause serious digestive issues.  

Besides, if steroids were legal then probably they would be safer; doctors would be able to help athletes administer them in safe doses, and drug companies would likely create drugs that were less deleterious.

Yes, but steroids are unnatural.  

So what?  Unless you are a practicing Christian Scientist you probably accept unnatural interference in sports, already.  It is “unnatural” to do complex arthroscopic shoulder surgery on a baseball pitcher who has a torn rotator cuff, or knee surgery on a hockey or basketball player.  Years ago such injuries would have ended the athlete’s career.

What about our students? This could have a bad influence on them.     

So are hotdog-eating contests.  And the television.  And almost all news about celebrities.  Perhaps you think that those examples are not comparable to a "bad influence" that encourages students to undertake greater health risks.  Fine.  Then let's also ban boxing, car racing, deep water diving, football, hockey, and climbing Mount Everest. 

And finally...


Since we are now immersed in another nauseating election cycle full of distortions, fabrications, conflations, stupidity, and outright lies – all of which are still better than not having an election cycle, I would like to offer the following advice (as a public service, of course):

Please Don't Vote! - (if you have to be convinced to vote).

I'm committed to voting, as are most of my friends.  But I don't want to convince people to vote who are too tired, too busy, too undecided, or who would rather watch TV.

I like the idea that people who don't care enough to vote should be allowed to decide not to vote.  It's the right decision for them.

Of course, if you promise me that you’ll vote for my candidate then maybe I’ll drive you to the polls.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

The Wrong Way to Sell the Iran Deal
By David Gilfix

Supporters of the Iran deal are trying to convince Americans that everyone else supports it too, except for a few renegades who are either war mongers, America haters, Israeli supporters who don’t care about the United States, or simply inferior analysts – depending on who is making the accusations.  Chuck Schumer has been accused of all four and more, in retaliation for declaring that he will vote his conscience rather than his Party.

But simple logic should tell us that not only are those who oppose the deal not an exception; they might actually be close to the majority.  Obama and Kerry must know this.  That is why they are selling this deal as an “Agreement” rather than a “Treaty.”   A “Treaty” requires the ratification of two-thirds of the Senate, and is binding on future presidents.  Clearly, this deal would have been presented as a Treaty if Obama believed he could win the two-thirds approval.  He didn’t.

Instead the deal is being submitted as an  “Agreement,” under the terms of the recently passed Corker Bill, which requires only a majority approval to pass.  As an Agreement, President Obama would be able to veto a majority rejection of the deal, providing he gets at least one-third plus one members of either the Senate or the House or Representatives to support the deal.  

So Obama is fighting to get one-third plus one votes in either house of Congress in order to pass the Agreement.  Those opposed to the Agreement are fighting to get two-thirds of both houses of Congress to disapprove the deal in order to reject it. 

And it is a fight.

Which means that not everyone approves the deal, despite the smug assumptions of some of its supporters. 

Not only is there disagreement among elected representatives, but also among voters.   Recent polls show mixed results.  According to data provided in an article posted on, the most recent Quinnipiac University poll indicates that 57 percent of Americans oppose the deal, while just 28 percent supported it (presumably the rest are undecided).  A July 20th ABC/Washington Post poll indicated the opposite, that 56 percent of Americans support the deal, while 37 percent oppose it. However, a Pew Research Center poll, released at the same time, of people familiar with the deal indicated that 48 percent rejected it and only 38 percent accepted it.

It is possible that, as the vote nears, some Democratic representative who are ‘on the fence’ about the deal will jump on the “support side” if they believe that Obama will get his needed one-third plus one votes either way.  But right now I think it is accurate to say that neither a majority of representatives or a majority of Americans clearly support the Iran deal.

Of course, none of these polls address the actual issues around the deal.  They simply demonstrate that the argument that ‘you should support the deal because everyone else does’ – which is a stupid method of decision making, anyway – is factually wrong.   

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Thomas Friedman Tries To Ruin My Day with Conflation
by David Gilfix

If I were to teach a course in critical reading I think that I would include Thomas Friedman’s most recent article, “Go ahead, Ruin My Day,” as one of the required texts.

This was vintage Friedman.  Well written, well paced, covering all the hot topics, and definitely pointed.  (Here’s some news to “ruin my day”).

Friedman is a master of conflation, a persuasion technique that usually has as its goal inflation.  It works like this:  you include, or “conflate” different examples in order to inflate the severity of the least valid example.   In this case, the three example of bad news that might “ruin” your day were the Israeli elections, ISIS, and Iran. 

Of course, Friedman doesn’t actually ‘say’ that each example is similarly bad, and perhaps he doesn’t even believe it himself.   But by including each of the examples in the same column he is signaling to his readers that we should consider the elections results to be something very bad.

Conflationists like to lump together certain themes, such as bigotry.   ISIS is a bigoted, racist group, and Netanyahu made some campaign comments that could be considered bigoted.  Yes, except that ISIS cuts off your head and pushes gay citizens to their death off of high buildings.  And they kill you if you refuse to convert to Islam.

By that way of thinking we could certainly lump Churchill and Hitler:  Winston Churchill made many comments that could be considered racist, and so did Hitler.  Therefore let’s include them both in the same column.   (I hope that doesn’t  “ruin your day”).

To support his cause, Friedman throws in some examples that will appeal to critics of Israel who like simple answers to complex issues, such as the settlements (as if everyone ‘knows’ that they are both illegal and the cause of the conflict).  Also, to appear fair, Friedman discusses the lack of peace and concedes that we should not “put all of this on Netanyahu,” and then points to the “insane worthless Gaza war that Hamas initiated last summer,” and the fact that the Palestinians “spurned” two previous “two-state offers” from Barak and Olmert. 

But if the Palestinians spurned two previous land-for-peace offers and if Hamas initiated a war last summer after Abbas walked out on negotiations and made an alliance with Hamas, then why blame the lack of peace on Israel?

Friedman doesn’t, he is much too clever. 

Instead he simply conflates different “wrongs” to make his point:  Israel has settlements and the Palestinians rejected two peace treaties and started a war in Gaza.  (But remember, we shouldn’t “put all of this on Netanyahu.”).

What happened in Israel, yesterday, was Democracy.  Yes, the campaigning got dirty at times, and some of us (and Mr. Friedman and President Obama) might not like the results, but that is how it works in democracies.

By the way, one result of the election is that the number of Arab members of the Israeli Knesset increased from eleven to seventeen.