The Teaching Curve

One of the more satisfying aspects of being part of a music faculty as a full-time job is the fact that there’s always room to improve and new challenges to be met. I have a colleague who’s been teaching keyboard skills for roughly 40 years, who told me a few years ago that she finally found a better way to help students master a concept that had been part of the curriculum for her entire tenure. I am still inspired by her example, by her drive to continue to work towards the unachievable ideal of a perfect classroom. I love that, in teaching, ideal solutions continue to elude even the best practitioners of the art.

Right now, I’m preparing for the three classes that I’ll be teaching this fall. This is the first occasion in my many years of teaching in which none of the subjects that I’m covering will be new for me. I will be teaching one class for the fourth time, another for the third, and even the new class is on repertoire that I’ve taught dozens of times (but with our new curriculum, the time period covered by this class is slightly different than it used to be).

I find that the ebb and flow of classes that I’ve already offered is intriguingly unpredictable. Generally, if a course goes well the first time I teach it, I’m less satisfied the second time, and vice versa. Each new group of students has a unique genetic makeup, and discussions that flowed freely one semester might be greeted with silence and tumbleweeds blowing between desks the following year. Since my lectures involve a high degree of extemporizing from a basic outline, there are subtle differences between the information imparted each time, and sometimes the key that allows students to unlock a subject turns out to be something that I omit the second time through a topic because I originally had thought it was merely a minor side point. When I exactly replicate a previously effective explanation for a topic that helped a previous group to quickly master the material, I often find that new students chafe at the stale pedagogical methodology.

As a teacher, it’s easy to allow myself to get mired in a single way of thinking. Sometimes, in retrospect I find that I’ve been adhering too closely to the simple topics in order to help students master basic ideas, but without giving them a sense of the larger context. Conversely, at times I’ve found that I’ve worked so hard to open students’ minds to the greater background issues that I’ve left them confused as to how to approach the analyses at the heart of the course. I feel as though I’m continually walking on a tightrope, constantly correcting the imbalances that threaten to send the learning process crashing into the abyss.

As usual, I’m re-thinking my basic assumptions about the courses I’ll soon be teaching. For the two classes that I’ve taught multiple times, I’m taking opposite approaches. For one, I’m leaving the syllabus exactly the same as the one I utilized last year. For the other, I’m completely restructuring how I’m framing the topic. I’m hopeful that both approaches will work perfectly, but believe that it’s more likely that I’ll find flaws in each class and will continue to revise my approaches in the years ahead.

4 thoughts on “The Teaching Curve

  1. Kyle Gann

    Unless you calcify and become dead wood, your teaching methods have to change through your entire career, if only because you age and the students relate to you differently. Interactive ploys that worked great when I was 42 and hip (and younger than their parents) don’t work anymore at 55. Now they require me to be more of an authority figure, which has always made me uncomfortable. (Also, I don’t remember their names and majors as well as I used to, and get impatient more quickly. Sometimes I want to tell a class of freshmen, “I’ve been teaching you this for 16 years, why haven’t you gotten it yet?”) Diminution of empathy has forced me to feign timeless wisdom and lay down the law more insistently. On the other hand, I’ve collected quite a repertoire of never-fail one-liners.

    Reply
    1. smooke

      Yes, I’ve started to notice that shift in the way our natural interactions work, even at a decidedly unhip 42. Students used to find me very easy to approach but that’s faded recently, requiring me to reach out to them a bit more. And I can imagine some of your failsafe one-liners, especially since one of mine is a quote from an old blog post of yours in which you proposed the following headstone for your grave: Here lies Kyle Gann. Raise the 7th degree in minor.
      – David

      Reply
  2. greg

    I think teaching approaches change a lot based on the make up of the current students. I always find myself trying to re-evaluate if what I am doing is reaching as many as possible while not downplaying the top students. I am not a visual learner and one of my last theory classes was full of visual learners. I had to implement more of the visual to communicate better with them. I think it was difficult for them to follow me because I taught very non-visibly(sp. might not be a word). For me, teaching the same course multiple times allows me to grow as a teacher. I have to be stimulated when teaching just like they have to be stimulated in their learning. It might just be a different piece of rep. to discuss the cadential six-four. Either way, the one liners will come :) Like, Mozart String Quartet in d minor, there is nothing minor about it :)

    Reply
  3. chris

    Very nice post .. interesting you all write from a perspective of your students being younger than you. There is a growing population of adult students like myself. What I find frustrating sometimes is how much academic institutions are geared toward the under 25 set. Everything from financial aid options, the inane activity fees, and the allowance for some behaviors which hopelessly drag the lesson for many adult students who find time and money a bit more precious than their younger counterparts.

    I do harbor a dream of founding a music school where no one under 30 is allowed and people earning a certain income may be able to go for free – even if they are part-time.

    Have any of you taught in inner city high schools or adult evening school programs?

    PS. I personally love mixing natural and harmonic minor to get dom 7th with the 7th not raised but raised in another voice for a juicy cross relation.

    Reply

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