Unlock the Great Teacher Within

Mike Lawson • MAC Corner • October 5, 2017

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Teacher – I cannot think of any other word in our language that carries with it more importance than the word teacher.

Teacher – One who passes on information and develops skills in others. Teachers who do it well develop students who have a life-long love of and appreciation for the subject matter: music.

We have all had great teachers, ones who had a positive and profound impact on our lives, and we have all had “not-so-great” teachers, ones with whom we were unable to connect. This is not to say they were bad teachers but merely teachers that, despite their best efforts, were unable to reach us as students.

There are no step-by-step manuals to help us become great teachers, ones who connect with every student we encounter, but there are certain characteristics we can focus on developing that will help us become the great teacher to which we aspire.

Great teachers have an extensive knowledge base.

We have information to share. Through life experiences we continue to increase our knowledge and accumulate a toolbox of resources to help us meet the needs of our students.

We must remain committed to being life-long learners. Taking continuing education classes, reading books and professional journals along with attending state and national conferences are all integral ways to help us continue our growth and development. Discovering new information, learning new ideas and developing new skills increases our knowledge base exponentially.

Great teachers believe in what they do.

We realize our lives have been positively impacted by the subject matter we are teaching and we want our students to experience the same benefits. Getting together with colleagues to talk about music, teaching and about what is important is energizing. In doing so, we often realize that we do not have it so bad after all. These kinds of conversations help to level the playing field and keep things in perspective. We understand that we are not alone.

Attending live performances helps affirm what we do and why we do it. Although we may perform with our own students, it is important to attend performances by other groups as well. When doing so be less of a critic and more of an observer. Looking at the reactions of the students, the expressions on their faces, their enthusiasm and their sense of wonder helps us to realize the influence and impact we have on their lives. Watching the parents and grandparents allows us to see the pride in their eyes. To witness that we are helping make these kinds of connections with our students and parents is powerful.

Attending concerts of advanced and professional ensembles allows us to hear quality sounds and performances and helps us to keep our passion for music alive. If the only sounds we have to relate to are the ones that our students make, we will lose our artistic standards. In doing so the quality of our ensembles’ performances will diminish over time.

Great teachers have a vision.

We have a clear picture of what we want our students to learn. This may be the most difficult part of being a teacher. There is so much to learn and there is so little time to learn it. We often do not make decisions because we are afraid that we will get it wrong. But not making a decision is the worst decision we could make!

Teachers need to have a curriculum from which to teach and they must carefully plan each day’s lesson. By having a well-thought out plan, we maximize instruction time allowing students to remain engaged in the learning process. Begin and end your class on time and be consistent in correcting errors and dealing with behavioral situations.

Select material and music that is developmentally appropriate. When working on music that is too hard, students can easily become overwhelmed, frustrated and disinterested, while selecting music that is too easy will lead to boredom.

Determining what information and skills our students bring to our classroom is essential to help us make the right decisions. Once we have an idea of what our students know and can do, we continue the journey of learning.

Along the way we must make periodic stops to ensure we remain on the correct course. In short, we need to assess our progress. Assessment not only helps us to measure student learning, it helps us to measure our own (teacher) effectiveness. Once we assess, we reflect, make the necessary corrections and continue the journey.

Great teachers know how to communicate.

We are able to relate to students in such a way that makes learning meaningful and relevant.

Relating to others requires us to put the other person’s needs first. To be a good communicator we do not need to think less of ourselves, instead, we should think of ourselves less. Treating our students as people first is a start, such as saying “good morning” or that you are happy or excited to see them, and making students feel welcome in your class sets the proper tone and allow the channels of communication to be open.

It has been said that when working with students it is always best if we say the second thing that comes to mind, as that first reaction will often get us into trouble.

We can improve the effectiveness of our communication by avoiding (or at the very least limiting) the use of the words I, me, or my in our speech and writing. Instead we should use us, our, and we. How many times have you heard someone say, “I would like to take this opportunity to thank you for coming to the concert tonight. I hope that you enjoyed it. I sure am proud of how my students played tonight.”

By putting our audience first, we can convey a much stronger and more powerful message. Here is the same sentiment conveyed a different way. “Thank you for your attendance at tonight’s concert. It means a great deal to our students that you were here to support their efforts. Hopefully you enjoyed their performance and share in the pride that we all do when we hear them play so well.”

We also limit the effectiveness of our communication, through the use of verbal “tics.” Listening to someone repeatedly saying “um,” “ok,” “ah,” and “you know,” simply puts so much interference in the message that we lose the point.

Hearing someone say “Ummm, ah, I, ah, want to thank you for, ah, coming to the concert tonight. You know, ah, it, ah, is, umm, very important that you…” Enough! Although the use of these nonsensical fillers gives us time to think and to hopefully keep our audience from tuning out, it completely destroys the message. Instead, use a pause. Using silence as a part of your speech not only gives you time to think, it also makes your message more powerful and meaningful. It adds an element of suspense and helps keep your listener engaged.

It is also important to realize that all written communication is read from the viewpoint of the reader and not the writer. This is especially true when we write conversationally, such as email. When speaking with someone, we hear the inflection of the voice…we hear the music. When we write, we lose that music and must rely solely on the written word. Before hitting the send button, be sure to read your message from the point of view of the person who will receive it.

Great teachers continually assess and refine.

We are never satisfied and always are seeking to be more effective. As teachers, we must continually think through what we taught, how we taught it and how our students responded or performed.

As teachers, it should be our goal to teach for thirty or forty years and not one year thirty or forty times. During our careers, we will mature and look back only to see how we have changed. As we continue to learn and experience, we realize certain things are more important while others are less so. Although our mission remains constant, some of our values will change. Through it all, we hope our love of people and subject matter will continue to flourish and more and more of our students will look back and remember us as one of the great teachers they had in their life.

For more information and help in becoming a great music teacher the Music Achievement Council has compiled Tips for Success to help with all facets of running a school band and orchestra program. There you will find ideas and tips on recruiting, retention, working with parents, administration, developing a budget, creating an instrument replacement plan, music advocacy, and so much more.

Also available are handbooks to help in recruiting and retaining students including A Practical Guide for Recruitment and Retention, and Bridging the Gap. If you work with beginners, The First Performance set for band and orchestra is a complete first concert. Using the first few notes students learn, First Performance provides all the music you will need along with a script and sample program.

It is a great way to showcase your students early in their musical development. Schools that have used First Performance receive rave reviews from students, parents, and administrators. The Music Achievement Council’s products are distributed by Hal Leonard Publishing and can be ordered through your local servicing music dealer. For additional information about the Music Achievement Council, visit nammfoundation.org/resources-educators.

Dr. Charles T. Menghini is an educational representative of the Music Achievement Council and is president emeritus of VanderCook College of Music in Chicago. Menghini conducts and presents clinics and workshops internationally and writes for many professional journals and magazines and is co-author of the Essential Elements Band Method, published by Hal Leonard Corporation.

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