Monday, January 24, 2011

On Teaching

Classes began last week, and with the beginning of a new semester comes a new challenge.  I am teaching a course in Choral Methods for students who aspire to be public-school music teachers.  This is the first time I've taught a course like this.  I'm trying to give the students what I know about running a good rehearsal and making a choir sound good.

By the second class, I had an experience that reminded me of something I believe is a fundamental truth of teaching.  It has to do with our role as teachers in helping students to achieve their goals.

On the second day of classes, I got an email about a student who might come to sit in on my class.  She wanted to see if it was what she needed and wanted.  The email related the student's history--let's call her Jennifer.  The story was a little sad but not all that unusual.  Jennifer really wants to be a music teacher.  She has a lively and approachable personality that children will respond to.  She went to a college here in Phoenix (not ASU) where she did reasonably well in her music classes.  That college, however, doesn't offer teacher certification.  She went to a different college (these two schools have an arrangement) to try to complete that portion of her work, but because of weak piano and sight-singing skills, the professor at the second school felt that she wasn't ready to student-teach.  She completed her music degree at the first school, but she has not been certified to teach.  She's hoping to fix that at ASU.  But she's discouraged.  She's gotten the message that she's not good enough.  She can see her dream slipping away.

Now, this must be said:  the professor who told her that she wasn't ready to student-teach was probably right, and he was performing an important function.  We need to be sure that the men and women who stand in front of our children are qualified.  Somehow, though, his message got garbled, or perhaps he didn't deliver it clearly.  Instead of hearing "you're not ready to student-teach now," Jennifer heard "you can never student-teach."

This is a shame, and it goes to the heart of something I believe--maybe the main thing I believe--about teaching.  It is not our job to tell students what they cannot do.  It is our job to find out what students want to do and to show them how they can accomplish it.  We have to be realistic, certainly, and we have to accept that, in spite of our ecouragement, some students won't achieve their goals. 

Our job, as I see it, is to find out what students aspire to.  Then we should give them our best reading of their abilities.  We should help them to figure out what they'll have to work on to get their skills and abilities to the level required to be successful, and then we should give them strategies to accomplish that.  Sure, some students will give up because the task is just too overwhelming, or because their desire to do whatever it was they said they wanted to do isn't strong enough to overcome the inertia of addressing the deficiencies.  Or maybe somewhere along the way they discover a different, more consuming passion that is better suited to their abilities.

But that is fundamentally different from saying to a student, "You will never be successful at this.  Find something else to do."  We cannot know that, and in any case, it's for the student to discover.

Teaching, I think, is like drawing a map.  To help Jennifer, I need to figure out where she is starting and  where she wants to end up.  My job, then, is to help her determine the route--like a GPS system.  If she figuratively wants to get to New York, it will matter whether she's starting in Jersey City or Los Angeles.  But while it's a whole lot easier to get to New York from Jersey City, it's not impossible to get there from LA.  I think too often we see someone who is metaphorically in LA and decide for them that they shouldn't bother to try to get to New York.  What if, instead of saying, "Calculating," your GPS receiver said, "Sorry, that's too far, and you'll hate the ride.  Pick another, less taxing, destination"?

More than one student has surprised me by completing a journey I didn't think was possible.  It happened just last fall.  A man who had been working (or more properly, procrastinating) for a long time on his doctorate faced an absolute deadline:  if he didn't finish his work in time to graduate in December, the clock would run out, and he would never receive a doctorate from ASU.  When he wrote to me on October 15 saying that he was determined to finish, I was skeptical, to say the very least.  He had to have a completed research paper ready to present to his committee for a defense on November 22.  Though I knew the topic, I had not seen even one page of the project. I was pretty sure that he hadn't been working on it consistently because he was fighting with the ASU bureaucracy instead.  They had relented, so he could finish--theoretically.  I told the student that he had set himself a superhuman task.  But the key is that I didn't say that it was an impossible task.

He began to send me sections of his paper.  To my relief, he was a decent writer, though his stuff needed work.  I filled the Word document with comments and corrections and sent it back to him.  The next section I got was markedly better, and so it went until he did indeed have a respectable paper he could defend in November.  After the defense, he made the final edits the committee demanded, and I got to put a doctoral hood on him in mid-December.  It was  a victory for both of us.

I frankly didn't believe that he would finish, but I didn't act on the belief (except to warn him that his road was very hard and would have to be traveled in record time).  I let him decide whether or not he could make the journey.  Yes, he might have failed.  But the fact is, he succeeded, and I didn't predetermine either his failure or his success.  He chose success and did the monumental work that was needed to achieve it.

I'm hoping I can do the same for Jennifer.  She is meeting with me later this week.  I will try to figure out what her piano and sight-singing skills are, and then I will give her a candid assessment of where I think she is on the path to her dream.  Then I will help her to map out a way to reach her goal.  If she is really determined and disciplined, I'm sure she can do what she wants to do.  It is not up to me to tell her that what she wants to do isn't for her--because I don't know that.

Why do teachers sometimes discourage students from trying to achieve their goals?  I think it's a well-meaning but misplaced desire to protect the student from disappointment.  Certainly, trying and failing is very discouraging--it might even be devastating.  But isn't it worse to wonder your whole life if things could have been different if only you'd tried?

I can see both points of view.  I may be harming a student by giving him or her what turns out to be false hope.  But I still think it's better for the students to decide how hard they are willing to work and how determined they are to pursue their goals.  It's not up to me.

So I will continue to keep my fears for the students' success to myself.  Though I may be worried that a student will fail, I will not allow that fear to limit a student's dreams. I will continue to try to draw road maps.  To me, that is what teaching is all about.

When I talked briefly with Jennifer after class last week, I felt again that this is the right choice.  I could tell that she was shocked when I said, "Your piano and sight-singing skills probably do need work, but that doesn't mean they'll never be good enough.  Let's see if we can figure out a way to get them good enough."  She got teary-eyed.  I hope it's not too melodramatic to say that she looked as though she had gotten her life back--because that's just how it seemed to me.  I am meeting with her on Thursday, and we will draw the map.


1 comment:

  1. I agree with everything you say. My only addition would be to cases where there is more than one way to get to the intended destination (to continue with the gps analogy) and some are better for some people than others. Our responsibility as teachers is to help students find the correct path, the one that will lead them where they want to go.