Why It Matters
Last Tuesday I found myself crying at a local coffee place, my German text books and Moleskins chock full of notes scattered on the table before me. Tears streaming down my face, I picked up my phone to fire off a few dramatic WhatsApp messages to family and friends: I would leave Austria. Why? Learning German, I thought, was simply impossible.
I looked resentfully at the books and found the courage to open to one of the many pages I’d been assigned this week by my new teacher. Crossword puzzles, outdated photographs of people with text bubbles engaged in irrelevant conversations, loads of primary colors, comic strips, long, terrifying paragraphs, and word scrambles jumped out at me. A cluttered mess I could barely understand. Bitterly, I closed the book again. This was hopeless. I thought about what I might do for a job in Old Bennington, Vermont, where my family home is located. Perhaps I could work at Meals on Wheels with my uncle Brian…
But then my attention was drawn back to the hipsters casually sipping coffee around me. As it turns out, I happen to love my life in Austria, work with Musikal Husky, my piano students, and, in fact, I actually CAN learn German. So why did this day feel so hopeless?
Through my sniffles, anger, and frustration, a clarifying conclusion began to form. It wasn’t really me, it was the approach and pedagogy of these books and the lack of direction I felt with my German-language education at large. There didn’t seem to be a clear plan and I couldn’t find a program/teacher to provide me with the structure I so desperately want and need. As I contemplated this, deep inside, a warm and fuzzy feeling emerged as I realized: This is why it all matters!!! Pedagogy!! Because methodology and the way information is presented actually has the power to affect a student’s innermost self-esteem for better or for worse.
Opening a Moleskin to a new page, I made a list of the main elements of bad pedagogy:
Waste of time
Next, I made a list of words describing my emotional state. Bad pedagogy leaves students feeling:
This led to a happy list. What students need:
A support system (family, friends, qualified/nurturing teachers)
-Reviewing and mastering fundamentals
Clear practice instructions
Qualified, thorough teacher with a PLAN
I am proud to say that with my own students, I believe these four qualifications are met. By working closely with parents, teachers provide a strong, unified, and positive support system for the young learners. Logical pedagogy (both methods I’ve studied and taught before as well as our own in-house materials) helps me present complex information in a clear and progressive fashion, ensuring that students don’t ever feel hopeless or confused. Repetition and ample review of repertoire already studied solidifies students’ skills and technique. In terms of practice, all students leave the studio with a printed list of exactly how and what to practice the following week, down to the number of repetitions per day. At home, the student and/or parent fill out the sheet with stickers or tally marks so I can assess at the next lesson and better plan how to spend our limited time. And finally the qualified teacher bit. I can say that while qualifications can be vague and subjective, I’m truly obsessed with pedagogy, continuing education, and my students’ development not only as musicians, but as happy and productive citizens of planet Earth.
When my focus shifted from my own misery to the music community and working toward strengthening the educational experience of our music students, I grew happier instantly. There was a purpose to our work at Musikal Husky and my private teaching. I thought cheerfully of one student who apparently loves his Rhythm Keeper (our rhythm reading book) so much that he has been spotted practicing alone at bedtime and teaching his younger brother how to count and clap. Great success.
As I biked to my German tutor’s home, I thought constructively about how to improve my own experience, which led to a positive discussion once there.
So, why write about this? I suppose that even as someone immersed in teaching and pedagogy needs a reminder once in a while of why it all matters. Firstly, because learning a subject like the German language or the violin or thermodynamics is very, very hard. There are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of new things to teach our brains. Therefore, we need positive support, a logical step by step approach, clear instructions, a qualified and caring teacher, patience, and a PLAN. Armed with these critical elements, we can indeed learn anything.