In 2000, I received a degree in Music Education and Tuba Performance from the Eastman School of Music. Since then, I’ve had a lot of different jobs (LSAT counter, Science Lab Fictional Technician, Giant Rabbit Costumer Wearer for the opening of a supermarket… yes, I’ve done all these things. I’ll see if I can find some pictures). However, in the past 10 years, I’ve spent most of my time teaching in some way or another. I have taught people how to use computer software since 2004, and I have taught private trombone and piano lessons along the way as well.
If you broaden the meaning of teaching, it’s really just explaining how to do something as efficiently as possible and in a way that sticks. And if we take that derivation one step further, explaining is just an essential part of communication. In that sense, it’s something that everyone does many times per day. We explain how we’re feeling, or why we prefer one thing to another, or we try to get someone to explain their problems so we can brainstorm a solution. What I’m trying to say is that many of the skills I’ve learned as a teacher have greatly aided me in my daily life, and many of the ways I’ve found to efficiently communicate have been invaluable in my classroom. So I’d like to share some of the principles that have guided why I teach the way I do.
1. Don’t talk down to children. Don’t talk down to adults. Don’t talk down to anyone.
When I worked at Sesame Place (add that to the list!), we were given a packet of information about how to interact with children. Amongst the practical, everyday instructions, there were a series of epigrams from famous people, and this was one of them. It makes me crazy that even with google, I can’t find who this is attributed to.
Everyone deserves to know that the questions and concerns they have are going to be listened to and responded to without condescension. For me in my class, that means I sometimes have to say, “the right mouse button is the other one,” but I do it in the same tone of voice I use for my other instruction. This creates a safe environment, and that’s the only space where meaningful learning is possible.
Outside the classroom, this is crucial to having any sort of meaningful dialog. As soon as you talk down to a person, they have no further reason to listen to anything you have to say. You delightfully nullified all of your arguments for why you believe something, and in most cases declared yourself champion when they decided not to respond.
2. Your anger is misplaced
This was told to me during one of my evaluations during my student teaching in an elementary school. I was running a band rehearsal, and the kids were squirming a lot and not paying attention. So I got out my stern voice and started yelling for them to pay attention. I was frazzled and frustrated, especially since I was being observed, and my observer first’s statement after the rehearsal was “your anger is misplaced.”
He explained that I was yelling to solve a problem that I had started. I was not engaging the students in a way that they could understand or accept (the piece was too difficult for them), and their natural reaction was to squirm and misbehave. Had I taken a different approach, I might have been able to address the issues they were having and salvage the rehearsal.
He then explained that when I get angry in the classroom, it’s probably because I’m unable to accomplish what I want. There are many contributing factors to my ability to do what I set out to do, but the one constant one, and the one that I have control over is how I approach the situation. Rather than being angry that they weren’t doing what I wanted, I needed to analyze the situation and try some different approaches. Perhaps change the piece we were practicing, play something more fundamental, take the music away and try something fun. There are always other options out there, and it’s my responsibility as the teacher to discover and implement them.
It’s also important to analyze my anger outside of the classroom. Often what feels like a personal attack is merely a reaction to something I have said or done inadvertently. When I can discover the root of why I’m angry and where it stems from, I can find an approach to communicate with the object of my anger in a meaningful way.
3. Work is play
This is something of mine I add in, though it comes from a place of insecurity. I often assume that my audience is a captive audience, attending my workshops because they are required to. This stems from the often draining feeling I get when I attend a workshop where I am not sufficiently engaged. We learn much better when we enjoy what we’re doing. As a result, I try to make it as fun as possible, which can be a challenge when you’re teaching dull software.
I try to be funny, both in a direct way (ask me sometime what Peeps have to do with Microsoft Access tables), as well as in a self-deprecating way (“Is everyone having fun so far? Because there’s nothing more fun than applying data validation to a named range!”). I often reference elementary school both in the activities (“Choose the background color closest to the classic crayola color of your choice. Raw Umber and Burnt Sienna are both acceptable.”) and also incentives (“if we get done early, we can play 7-up”). I find that taking this playful tack lightens the mood in my classroom.
I keep a close eye on how I’m using my time when I teach, but I’m not afraid to dip into it to go on tangents. I freely talk about my favorite places to eat in the city, as well as anything else that someone might ask about. When I do this, my students feel more relaxed and less like they’re being put through a mechanical process.
I do like bringing this similar silliness into my interactions outside of class, as it makes for a more open and playful environment to communicate. I have learned to use caution with this one, though, as there are times when it’s not appreciated.
4. Fear of failure is an indication of integrity
This is not so much a classroom behavior, but an important principle to keep in mind.
One of the classes I took in college was Teaching Secondary Winds and Percussion with Mitch Robinson. On the first day of class, he asked us all what our biggest fear was about teaching. We went around the room, and with a few deviations, most of us said not having enough knowledge or skill to teach. Or in other words, being called out as a fraud by other colleagues or students.
Mitch then told us that our concern that we didn’t know enough was a sign that our intentions were in the right place. If we were afraid of that our best efforts might not be enough, it showed that we had the integrity to give as much as possible and constantly be on the lookout for how to shore up our limitations. In essence, our fear of failing was an indication that we took our responsibilities seriously.
Consider that the next time you’re not sure if you have the talents, skills, or knowledge to accomplish a task. Many times, it means you have your heart in the right place and you just need to give it a try to see how far along you actually are.