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.