ON BECOMING A GOOD TEACHER
Kamara Hennessey: January 2022 / Blog
In the Ultimate Music Teachers’ Facebook page, Glory St. Germain posed the question “What experiences have shaped you to become the teacher you are today?” As a music educator with over 20 years of having the opportunity to serve students - as young as 5 years old to semi-retired and retired seniors - I have often struggled with the perception of whether I am as good as/a better teacher than many of my colleagues in that educational field. In my earlier years of teaching, I would often compare myself with those educators who defined their success by having had students who achieved their music diploma as young as 11 - 16 years, or year after year produced scholarship winners in music festivals or exams. Therefore, when my students did not measure up to that standard of excellence, I felt I was not as good/great a teacher.
Over the years I tend to have attracted (and still do) students who would be defined as “average” or have cognitive challenges that would perhaps be diagnosed as “exceptional” learners. In all of my academic pursuits, no matter how diligent I worked at the subject matter, excelling in the percentage marks that would place me in the category “… with distinction” always eluded me. However, in spite of that I continued to persevere; not give up! With empathy, that same intent has since been transferred over to my students; not to easily write them or myself off that I am not up to facilitating the required learning process.
There is some truth to the axiom that with advancing age comes wisdom. The true testament to that I believe is the life experiences that challenge us the most as we continue through our destined personal path where we either get derailed or encounter a fork in the road that becomes the impetus to decide what are the “wise” choices one must make in order to not stagnate. In the process of pursuing those choices - whether they turn out to be good, bad, or indifferent - it allowed for becoming more intuitive/perceptive; hence, listen closely to that inner voice that guides one in how to proceed in the learning/teaching environment. One can only hope that when striving to present a musical concept by taking different approaches, the desired result to understanding it is achieved for the student.
The lyrics in the song “…by our pupils we’ll be taught”, from the timeless classic movie The King and I, express how in the course of getting to know our younger students, in particular, on a more personal level over time, they put their subconscious faith and trust in us as their teacher to ensure that they feel more musically empowered by recognizing their unique abilities through the learning process.
Jeff Sabo, Professional Development Coordinator at the Lotus Centre for Special Music Education, in his Using a Strengths-Based Approach Sept 27, 2021 / Blog states:
“It is true, there are many other activities out there, and I don’t think we should force everyone to take music lessons regardless of their level of interest. But actually, isn’t everyone made for music learning in some capacity? Isn’t there more to music learning than just reaching a certain level of achievement? If so, then equipping students of all abilities to enjoy music making and reach their own full potential has a great deal of value. In order to do that though, we need to see every student as capable of music learning in their own way.”
Qualified with a B.Mus. (Hon) degree, and other recognizable music certifications, I am still following my quest to “becoming a good teacher”. I have come to realize that in the pursuit of never-ending professional development (NEPD) the more I learn, the less I know. Therefore, I continue to tunnel/mine through to find the nuggets of wisdom from some expert music educators who have discoursed on the “been there, done that” issues. Through a positive mental attitude (PMA) they subsequently keep reinventing and diversifying themselves. Opening up myself into the growth mindset arena has allowed for flexibility in exploring resources that one trusts can best fit the needs of the learner and teacher in a significant and impactful way.
By default, a student and teacher learn from each other when staying engaged through collaborative efforts. In that setting “ah-ha” teachable moments often arise. Although I appreciate that pursuing graded level examinations through well-established examination boards is a great way to set goals for students who are capable, I have learned not to become fixated by that objective to measure progress and success. I had a student who took piano lessons with me from the age of 8 to 16 years. When I evaluated that Kelly was competent enough in her technical and musical skills to consider taking the RCM graded exams - Elementary (Levels 1-4) - she was not receptive to pursuing that goal. As she matured, her interest in repertoire was that of country music; her favourite artist was Reba McEntire. There was a song on a CD that she wanted to learn. The score that her mom purchased and was brought in at one of Kelly’s lesson sessions was at the Late Intermediate level. Counting the basic beats and feeling the pulses within rhythmic phrases still challenged Kelly. I knew I had my work cut out for me as she insisted on playing that piece. Without objecting it gave me the opportunity to use that piece as an example to find and compare the many musical elements in it that are found in an examination’s “classical” repertoire that Kelly had an aversion to exploring. Not a diehard fan of country and western music, I came to appreciate that stylistic/genre piece as we learned it together. A strategic practice approach at each weekly lesson helped Kelly to implement these into her home practice routine in order to achieve a musically expressive and fluent performance. Eventually, I also was able (not with the characteristic McEntire ‘country twang’) to sing the lyrics to the given melody as I played it on the piano! Although I did not have a longer student-teacher relationship with Kelly, I knew that her reading and technical skills were adequate enough for her to be accepted to play the keyboards in her high school band with confidence. She was also proud to state that she was often assigned to play the Xylophone.
As part of registering a potential student for weekly music lessons, an interview is scheduled with the parent(s). This meeting helps me to determine if I am the best fit for a student’s learning needs based on expectations expressed by the parent with respect to their child’s rate of progress that is reflective of their age and overall development. In mid-September 2019 I accepted a young adult student. His mother was referred to me by an ORMTA H/H colleague. The family had relocated to our city. Mom shared pertinent information regarding her son’s health history. At 7 months her son was diagnosed with neuroblastoma and had surgery to remove a tumor in his brain. It subsequently resulted in Opsoclonus-Myoclonus (weakening of the eye muscles for proper tracking). Follow-up chemo treatments severely affected normal development in gross and fine motor skills. Fortunately, his hearing remained intact, but, a weakening of tongue muscles brought on speech impediment; therefore, forming/pronouncing words was challenging for him in his growing years.
At 18 years old, Aaron (for privacy purposes, not his real name) was evaluated as cognitively functioning at that of an average 8-10 years old child in his reading and writing skills (dysgraphia). Although mom had her son enrolled in classes and speech therapy - post-high school - to meet his “exceptional” learning needs, the specialist/neurologist - on reading the conclusive research done on the subject matter - suggested that music lessons will also help. Mom’s search for music educators at a convenient location within the parameters of the city her family resided in previous years resulted in “rejections”. As mom and I engaged in conversation, I heard and saw the desperation in her voice and eyes and a “plea” for help. Feeling quite sympathetic, I decided to accept that student with the idea that I can learn a lot from him. Aaron would perhaps open a door to discovering how well I can adapt to him as a teacher by thinking and implementing outside the box …
I am not qualified with a certification in the area of ‘special music education”. However, when I am presented with a challenge, I search out resources where they can lead me to make an informed decision on how to proceed. Mom stated that Aaron liked playing on his older brother’s drum set, and this indicated that there was some musicality that I can draw out from him through rhythmic activities. We both agreed that her son’s progress through music lessons will be quite slow. She assured me that she had come to terms with that reality when it comes to his son’s learning abilities along with his other challenges, but she is not giving up; therefore, neither would I for both their sakes. As long as mom was prepared to stay at each lesson session to help me through her son’s identifiable needs, from a music therapy perspective, I was prepared to see where this journey would take us. That involved literally taking a hands-on approach to Aaron’s physical deficits. i.e. for his own comfort level, and mines as well, with my guidance I had mom assist her son with hands and arm movements - as required over the keyboard (exploring the groups of two and three black keys by landing on clusters, and lifting as far as they could go the appropriate fingers separately to match) - and on different parts of his body - head, shoulders, knees, etc - as applied to learning a song like “Twinkle, Twinkle …” from the Piano Adventures Pre-Reading level. For that movement activity, when comfortable, I also had Aaron hold a 2lbs weight in each hand as I mirrored how it was to be done. Instead of singing the words, “La, La” turned out to be a more effective phonetic sounding out of the melody to help with pitch placement around tongue movement. To aid in strengthening Aaron’s fingers, in our search we found a tool that was available on the Amazon shopping website. This firm rubber tool is designed with three holes - one in the middle to hold a pencil and two on either side of it to place the index and third fingers, with a loop underneath to hook the thumb through was ideal. Each week on his attendance sheet I encouraged Aaron to practice writing the letters in his initials or those in his first name. For him that was no easy task; but, he/we persevered! The feedback from mom at one of the lessons was that Aaron was beginning to button his own shirt without her help. For the three of us, that was a measurable success indeed! Mom attributed this to all the activities employed so far that were slowly increasing the strength in the hand, arm, and finger muscles; but, there was still a very, very long way to go… I was also made aware of the fact that Aaron must have IVIG infusions once a month due to being immune-compromised. That session could result in fever and lethargy; therefore, he could miss attending his scheduled lesson for that week; and this did occur as predicted; hence, broke the routine.
The COVID-19 pandemic that caused the world into lockdown effective March 13, 2020, gave us no choice but to cancel weekly sessions with Aaron. As a working mom who had to transition to the online format at home to keep herself fully employed she would not have been able to assist me if we felt that the virtual platform could still service her son’s development in his unique special needs. The upsurge in the variants in 2021 and 2022 has created further disruptions and uncertainties for how long this raging war against being entrapped by the C-19 “invisible” beast will end. Therefore, in this scenario, special needs children like Aaron are left under-serviced by not having access to activities that can help them to lead a “normal” and meaningful life in the longer term.
For many middle-class and lower-income families, the pandemic has left them economically compromised where spending priorities have taken a major shift pertaining to wants over basic needs. Awareness and concerns expressed by health care providers in witnessing an increase in mental angst - brought on by further school closures and social isolations from their peers for students in elementary, high schools, colleges, universities, other - has become another plague to cope with; that also has had a negative effect on the family dynamics in the home setting.
I tip my hat off to those music educators who have managed since March 2020 - without interruption - to maintain an online presence for families, who requested it, to keep up with private studio lessons in addition to their child/children (“held captive” at home) to participate in the virtual classroom sessions. For many couples with younger children who ended up working from their home trenches, they battled with virtual fatigue while trying to balance/solve the work-school-family lifestyle equation. It’s a scenario I continue to see in my son’s family.
In looking back to my time spent with Aaron and his mom for only 21 weeks in the fall-winter 2019-2020 term, I realized how it allowed me to find ways to be more creative. Often in the pre-planned lesson when a “lightbulb” flicked on, I found myself having to unexpectedly change the activity, and at that moment it became experimental and workable. I was left gratified that we three have had a very successful therapeutic music session that day. Through that experience, I can truly declare I did become a good and effective teacher/music educator (“therapist”) who felt so Divinely gifted to have been given, in that short term, an opportunity to bring hope, and perhaps some sense of mental and emotional stability, to a mom and her son each time we connected in my aesthetically pleasing home studio environment.