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February 15, 2011

I taught for four hours straight at School of Rock yesterday afternoon. Last week, my teaching wore on me a bit. I had some struggles, some not great teaching moments where kids were getting frustrated. A huge part of the job is trying to read how much you can and should push a kid. Sometimes you need to let a piece go unpolished. Sometimes you need to give them the experience of being able to play something like an expert. It’s easier with adults, because they’re more likely to be up front with you. I’m pretty good at the read, I think, but I’m not infallible and sometimes I make mistakes. I’ve had teachers who made me cry. I’m not that kind of teacher and these aren’t those kinds of students — that never happened until I was pretty advanced. But sometimes if you push too hard, they will shut down. Last week one boy was really mad that I made him do an exercise where I played a short pattern and he had to try to play it back to me. He has an unusually good natural ear and I know this kind of thing is what he needs to be doing to help it develop further. But he is a kid who likes — needs — control and doesn’t take easily to new things. He did what I asked, but he glared at me the whole time. This is, though, the same kid who told me the story about Superman. I never know quite what I’m going to find when he walks into my room. Today I’m going to try to lead with some silly stuff and to have play things for me to copy and then tell me if I’m right. I’m hoping that will do the trick.

I had a new adult student last night, a dad who wants to set a good example for his daughter who’s learning violin at her school, and also to try playing some of the fiddle music he likes to listen to. He’s had a handful of lessons before, but has mostly been trying to figure things out on his own. I always like first lessons, a chance to get to know the person I’ll be working with. With adults, it means a chance to tease out what they want to do, even when they may not have been sure themselves when they walked in. I discovered that this guy will give me a challenge I have not yet met in all my years of teaching violin: he towers over me. I’m a reasonably tall person and I mostly teach children, so this has never happened to me before. In my tiny teaching room, where there’s only so far I can stand back, it was difficult to see what he was doing because he was bowing over my head. Next time I’ll need to wear my high-heeled boots. Or bring a stool.

I also conducted our second duet lesson with my seven- and eight-year-old girls. They settled in more quickly this time, since the format was more familiar and by the end, we had a pretty good handle on the trio version of Twinkle we were playing together. The highlight of my evening, though, was this Valentine that my 7-year-old student made for me. I am informed that the people on the front are the two of us:

And here is the back:

I have to say that I love — really love — teaching music history to the smart and thoughtful college students I get the privilege of teaching at my university. I love the intellectual challenges of the job, I love helping students to learn how to communicate their ideas better through their writing and classroom discussions. I love introducing them to things they haven’t heard before and hearing what they have to say about them. I enjoy the challenge of trying to engage kids who are only in my class for the arts/hum credit — which is most of them. But I have to say, I really enjoy the payoff of working one-on-one with students, of getting the chance to get to know them better as people. College students don’t thank you for teaching them, at least not very often. They don’t draw pictures that I hang over my desk. Mostly they complain about the workload and the early hour of the class meeting and the fact that I ask them to check their cellphones at the door. The payoff from them comes later, if you run into them after they’ve graduated and they remember something from your class. It’s easier for them to think of you, at the front of the class, as an adversary, someone who’s trying to trip them up. I nearly always felt that way. Fear is a powerful motivator for work. It’s not a tool I choose to deploy. It’s just how it is at the school where I sometimes teach, especially in the large lecture classes that I teach there. The pressure to perform is inherent in the system. In violin lessons, there isn’t really a system. It’s just a relationship. My students and I are generally on the same side of the fence, not staring each other down across an expanse of open space under the shadow of a whiteboard. Once in a while, a student, like Superman boy, will hop the fence and stake out his own territory, like drawing an invisible line down the middle of a room shared by warring siblings. But I find it’s not usually that difficult to enter by the gate and find a way to share the acreage.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. crankygirl permalink
    February 15, 2011 10:41 am

    That is a really cute (and neatly lettered!) Valentine. I am glad that your students appreciate you.

  2. February 15, 2011 9:08 pm

    Love that card so much. There are few things more rewarding than working with kids. (Unless you hate kids, in which case anything would be more rewarding.) That student is probably going to remember you forever, Harriet. 🙂

  3. February 16, 2011 10:56 pm

    That’s an excellent Valentine.

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