“When we evaluate ourselves, rather than our students, we are more apt to discover ways to improve the success of our students.”
Responding publicly to Richard Chronister’s words is a deep honor for me, especially when I realize how much of my own teaching has been influenced and shaped by Richard’s distilled thoughts on teaching. I find myself coming back to Richard Chronister: A Piano Teacher’s Legacy with some regularity when I need my batteries charged.
The word “success” in piano teaching might be defined in just about as many ways as there are teachers, but Richard Chronister’s idea of success was rooted in the notion of an eager, able, self-directed learner, one who finds satisfaction, affirmation, and pleasure in the pursuit of musical expression. One of the great things about piano teaching is that we are free to determine what constitutes success in our students, drawing on various streams of awareness, learning and experience, and our own observational skills.
Not everything a student does can be traced to an action, word, or trait of the teacher, but a lot can—much more than it might seem at first glance. What is important is that we continue to revisit the questions, never allowing ourselves to become too comfortable or complacent with what we bring to the table. One of the eternally engaging aspects of teaching are the ongoing questions: How does positive change in a student come about? What is my role? What can I do to increase positive results? It strikes me that this is the heart of the serenity prayer adapted from American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, too: “God grant me serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”
Perhaps the greatest challenge in Richard’s statement is the practical issue of building time into our days to reflect upon each lesson and to assess the effect we have had on each student. Unless such time is regularly scheduled, it won’t happen. If we are to be accountable for the observations we make, the hypotheses we come up with, and the changes we see as worth exploring, we must involve a mechanism to record our thoughts and intentions, such as a journal or a colleague. I had the privilege visiting the New School for Music Study for a mini-residency last October, and realized again what a boon it is to function within a community of teachers under the same roof, rubbing shoulders and easing the logistics of meeting, talking about teaching, and supporting best aspirations and practices.
Tools for self-reflection are abundant and accessible today. Observational tools including audio and video recording are easier to use today than they have ever been. There is a growing awareness on many fronts of the importance of measuring and testing our hunches. We understand the notion of rubrics as ways to encapsulate or formulate our reactions to what we see in our teaching on a continuum that nudges us toward improvement. Even a simple, direct question, however, can be a powerful tool in helping us to focus and observe something particular. “How many minutes did I talk in this lesson?”, “How many times did the student get off the bench?”, “How many times did I offer an inspiring and musical demonstration?” When the data come in, we are empowered to plan and enact change, and then to evaluate the results of those changes.
One final thought in response to our quote of the week: Observation, reflection, evaluation, and change-making are all part of an on-going cycle. They are, or should be, a way of being for teachers. We’re never done with this cycle (and that’s a good thing!). All of our efforts in this direction become exponentially more valuable when they take place as immediately as possible, when they are as free as possible of both pride and self-judgment that can cloud our discernment, and for having an accountability “accomplice” in place. Our students will thank us, if not in words, with their observable growth and success in music-making.