“Teachers tend to do what is comfortable. Thus, they tend to teach others as if they were like themselves. Yet, what may be natural for one person, may be devastating for another.”
– Keith Golay
I believe that Keith Golay’s statement could be the inspiration for a blog post every week, for at least a year. Fully examining the quote requires us to not only observe our students closely, but to reflect upon our own biases and learning styles. Do we have certain biases that are hidden, even from ourselves?
This question reminds me of a book that my husband read as part of a course in early childhood education: Confronting Our Discomfort – Clearing the Way for Anti-Bias in Early Childhood by Tamar Jacobson. A description of this book: “How do our own attitudes get in the way of anti-bias in the classroom? In this practical resource, Tamar Jacobson provides a framework for early childhood teachers and education professors to confront this issue head on.” My husband, in reviewing the book for his class and reflecting on his own attitudes, insisted that he is free of underlying negative attitudes toward any ethnic group, any sexual orientation, etc. He did, however, list other groups of people which he holds in contempt. Among these, those who do not give the courtesy wave when you let them pass, Yankees fans, and so on.
Reflecting on this Golay’s quote this past week, I realized that my self-perception was inaccurate. While I view myself as flexible, I can in actuality be quite rigid. Before I go on, I invite the reader to reflect on the types of students and behaviors that are difficult. At first, this exercise gave me a bit of a laugh: “I’m biased against rude students, who don’t practice and play incorrectly. I’m funny that way!” But, seriously, there are so many ways in which we can be inflexible and can be harming our students. One example from a recent lesson:
Last week, my transfer student, Marie, played a piece with incorrect rhythm, without counting out loud (despite many experiences counting aloud in the lesson). As I attempted to correct this, she muttered: “This kind of counting confuses me.” Aha! A perfect opportunity to find out some information about how this student learns. I asked her what was confusing. She replied that in school, 8th notes are counted “ti ti.” I told her that’s absolutely no problem. From now on, we’ll count just as she does in school. (The following week, she tapped and counted a new piece with this way of counting, and it was quite rhythmic). Like many teachers, I actually am pretty flexible in terms of counting methods. Whatever works!
Later in the lesson, I heard a review piece and chose not to engage in any preparatory activities. I wanted to see exactly how she had practiced at home. Sure enough, the rhythm was off. She played right through a rest. I have to admit, rhythm errors really make me tense. I really thought I was making headway with this student, tapping and counting each piece, using whole body activities, and so on.
I wanted to get some information about this error and asked as nicely as I could how it was that she could see a rest and yet play a note at the same time. She, using that same quiet voice, told me that she feels more comfortable getting the notes first and the rhythm later. Bias alert! In the past, I would have gone on (and on) about how the rhythm is even more important than the notes. But instead, I reflected a bit. She was giving me valuable information, and I needed to honor her experience. I thanked her for telling me that and suggested a compromise. She could tap her fingers on the tops of the keys until the notes felt secure. Once she feels she knows the notes, she can play and count aloud. This seemed to work. Most important, I began to see things through her eyes. Goodness, there are so many things to think about when playing the piano. It can truly be overwhelming. These two moments gave me a glimpse into the student’s way of learning and also a glimpse into my own rigidity. I just saw her this evening, and she played last week’s new pieces with perfect rhythm.
I am challenging myself (and anyone who wants to join me) to take an extra moment to “check” my automatic responses and to endeavor to “hear” what my students are telling me, both verbally and non-verbally. Even the most strong belief may be reexamined in this process, but it is through this questioning that we grow as teachers and as human beings.