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, English language inadequacies, 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.




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