Tuesday, October 25, 2011

About Teaching, and Being a Teacher


When I was a boy I would pretend that I was a teacher. As an only child I often entertained an imaginary group of students whom I would instruct on every imaginable task that I was learning. Looking back, I can see that this was an early form of self-instruction. I also see how this both shaped and satisfied my desire to teach. Now, nearly fifteen years after my first real student, I find myself reflecting on what I have found out about teaching and being a teacher in American colleges. Here are a few of those thoughts.
My first introduction to teaching was through the Montessori system. This encounter was not as a teacher, but rather, as a young student. My earliest years of student-teacherdialectic were in this style. I feel that much of Maria Montessori’s method informs my style of teaching, not by following, but rather, by arriving at the same conclusions through my own experiences. Montessori’s approach is not limited to children and is very effective in adult teaching as well. Fortunately Montessori wrote volumes of descriptive text, which should be required reading for all educators.
It was after this experimental form of education that I was entered into a parochial, Catholic school. For three years my body physically rejected this dogmatic, rule-worshiping, form of indoctrination. The only benefit that I can claim from those terrible years is how not to teach, as well as an insightful appreciation for the filmic themes of Federico Fellini. Put simply, the parochial, faith-based, school system is intellectual child abuse. Students who graduate from these programs become either docile workers or fierce radicals—there is no in-between.
When the time came–and for my parents that was when I showed an interest–I had my first private teacher. This was a local piano teacher who was an accomplished pianist and composer. This style of teaching was based on a relationship. It involved a knowledgeable and capable teacher who taught me as an individual—a different style for each, unique person. This flexible style was informed by a constant sensitivity to what sparked the student’s interest and how to go about relating the new information to the student as an individual. It was also a relationship of admiration. These were not just piano lessons, they were studies with Paul Schocker –someone whom I greatly admired and, in those formative years, modeled myself after. The teacher was the event and this was a great incentive to practice, a role model to inform a sort 0f ideal self that I was seeking to become, and a kind and interested mentor who was willing to relate music to my life.
When it was time to go to college the decision was where to study. I had decided that I wanted to study music and, based on my experience with Paul Schocker, what was of primary importance to me was not where I studied, but whom I studied with. Those whom I admired as teachers dictated where I applied. I was not choosing to simply study music; I was choosing to study music with someone in particular. This is not unlike the artisan system of pre-industrial revolution society. I was seeking a master to apprentice to. I chose to go to The Mannes College of Music, in New York, because I wanted to be influenced by Per Brevig, Carl Schacter, and the Schenkerian tradition of that particular school. This was an extension from the individual influence to a certain ideological influence or school of thought. Approaching music through the Schenkerian lens, I found, was a different encounter with music.
My experiences at Mannes were repeated when I moved to Belgium to study with the Principal trombonist, Ivan Meylemans, of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Holland. For years I had prized the lush and melodic flavor of both The Metropolitan Opera and The Concertgebouw Orchestras. It was only natural for me to take this opportunity to steep in both of these influences. Again, what guided me was not the study alone, but the master I was studying with. My year at The Royal Conservatory of Brussels brought to my attention, for the first time, the differences between American and European education.
I have always been attracted to three things in a mentor. I say mentor because I now understand that the transaction between a student and a teacher has less to do with teachingand more to do with fostering an emotional position towards the thing studied, towards the student, as well as towards life. This informs the three qualities that I have always been drawn to and attempt to emulate.
First is character. Character is a term not used too often today and I intend it in the most antiquated way. Both dynamic personality and a basic sense of human dignity is a quality that is crucial for teaching. With a dynamic personality comes a dynamic presentation, whereas a strong sense of human dignity provides the necessary foundation of trust that a student must have for a teacher. In short I respected the character of those I chose to study with and was informed by their way of being towards the topic of study, others, and life.
Secondly I sought people who had something to say. When a teacher has something to say, in other words when they have done their own thinking about a topic, they do more than provide information from a textbook or words of some other “expert” in the field. An effective teacher has something to say and ultimately wishes to change the world through doing so. Teachers of this sort can be noticed in seconds. Typically they arrive without lecture notes, or simply a text with marginal notes to share with the class, and they do not assign one textbook, but rather assign readings from texts. A teacher who has something to say needs little more that a topic list (if that) to accompany their lecture. A teacher who relies solely on a singular textbook is not saying what they have to say. Perhaps the single most important change to the American classroom should be the elimination of textbooks. Textbooks are enabling and often myopic, too often avoiding the important controversies of a discipline.
The third quality that my teachers held was an active nurturing of themselves and their own thinking. Teaching to them, although an important part of their lives, was not the entirety of their life. Teaching was sharing with others the experience from actually doing what was being studied. When a teacher becomes little more than someone who has studied what one does when one is an expert is doing harm to the student. They are speaking from a removed sense of authority, which often serves a sense of inadequacy and fraud. There is a problem when one teaches what one has not practiced.