Monday, May 04, 2009

The Crutch Paradox

Classes have ended and it's the time of year when I turn my thoughts to what I want to get done over the summer and what changes I want to implement next year.

Of course, my list of things I want to accomplish over the summer is wildly unrealistic (as in.....if I could work without break for a year or two, I might get them done).
Oh least I have lots of ideas!

But this posting is about that other list: what I want to do differently next year. To me, teaching is an art form. I am always looking to improve my craft. Sometimes I want to apologize to past students because I feel I have become such a better teacher now then I was for them.

Some questions, though, I struggle with and have yet to find a really good answer. Here's one:
The Crutch Paradox

Basically, this can be summarized like so:

The more I do for them,
the less they do for themselves.

I've seen teachers on both ends of the spectrum.
On one end we have the teacher who doesn't really make assignments but starts the lesson with something like, "What do you have for me today?"

This works well for advanced, highly motivated students who think well for themselves. I often use it with my best students.

On the other end, we have the teacher who precisely lays out everything a student is supposed to do. At my school, I have one such colleague. His students know, walking in the door, pretty much every solo they will work on throughout their college career and in what semester they will work on that solo. The logic has been explained to me in this way: other university classes have clear syllabi and uniform expectations, why not an applied instrument? This approach also offers the advantage of fairness...everyone is held to the same standard.

Still, it isn't the approach I use or plan to use.

I often tell my students that I am trying to get them to become their own teachers-to learn how to think for themselves. With some, this works well. Other flounder-they are so used to being told what to do, it just hasn't occurred to them how to plot their own course.

The basic pillars of my syllabus are: Show Up, Prepare, and Show Incentive.

If I tell you everything you are supposed to do, what happens when you're out on your own with nobody telling you what to do?

But there is always the question of the "other" students. The ones who, for whatever reason, don't get it done.

I tell them to contact their accompanist....they don't.
I tell them to make an appointment to visit the local middle school and teach some demonstration lessons in front of a video camera....they don't.
I tell them to order music, sign up for seminar, mark in breath marks, look up musical terms, record their best take of an excerpt, .........they don't.

Perhaps the solution is obvious: bring down that righteous hammer of "F" upon their heads...that'll teach 'em.
But before I do that, I have to ask myself: am I applying rules fairly to everyone? Have I notified them of this assignment in a timely manner. The last thing I want to do is start throwing out "F's" in a capricious manner.

Yes, I could create an elaborate structure filled with rules and deadlines and appropriate consequences.
But this begs the larger question:
Am I teaching them to do it merely to avoid punishment? Is this right way to get them to show incentive? If I'm not careful it all slips into those questions of "Well, why should I do it if it isn't precisely stated in the syllabus?"

That's like the old joke of the professor who passionately orates on something she cares about only to have a student ask, "Will that be on the quiz?"

Because, if you ask that question, you're missing the whole point!
Future music educators, are you going to be that kind of band director that merely does the minimum to get by? If so, I hope my poor kid doesn't end up in your program!

Future performers....
well, if self-motivation in this insane job market isn't screamingly obvious, then GET OUT NOW!!!

So, I continue to work towards a good compromise of structure and freedom. I'll probably never perfect it but I love the challenge!

For anybody reading this (especially other teachers), I'd love to hear your thoughts.


Hoyt said...

What a dilemma indeed! I have gone through the same philosophical questioning myself.

I understand your colleague who thinks that his private lesson syllabi should reflect other classes; however, how many other classes involve meeting one-on-one with the instructor for an hour every week? Private lesson syllabi SHOULD be different from other classes, based on the nature of the interaction between student and instructor.

Because of that, I tailor my instruction to each individual. The highly motived ones have less structure, and the ones who need to be "pushed" will occasionally have more structured and planned out activities.

You asked about the "other" students in your post, the ones who just don't do anything regardless of instruction. I've had more than my fair share of this type of student, and I've only found one thing that works in the long run. I sit down with them and try to get to the root of the problem. I try to find the REAL reason they aren't putting any effort into their lessons. Many times we discover that the student really isn't interested in improving as a trombonist. Maybe they were at one time, or maybe they THOUGHT they were, but once they realize the amount of time and energy involved, it doesn't seem so appealing.

Some students are afraid to admit this to themselves, as though deciding to do something different is an admission of failure. Many times the student feels like they're going to make the instructor angry by telling them they aren't interested anymore (sadly, some instructors do get angry).

The most successful performers have high levels of intrinsic motivation . Without it, long-term success isn't really possible.

So for the "other" students, I try to help them discover what they are motivated to do; often this results in a career outlook that doesn't include the trombone, or in some cases music altogether.

Although it often "hurts" us as teachers to lose a student, my main interest as a teacher is to see a student succeed, regardless of whether or not that success involves the trombone.

Brad Edwards said...

Excellent thoughts, Hoyt. Thank you.

Will said...

I totally agree with this idea, Hoyt. We aren't just trombone teachers, but life teachers also. It hurts to see someone lose interest in the trombone but at the same time, we would get a serene feeling of knowing that they are doing something they truly love instead.