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Craig Sale: A teacher's life - the value of observation

September 30, 2015

Being observed by a supervising teacher and then receiving their constructive feedback was at the core of my own teacher training, both at the New School and at the University of Illinois. I believe it was this experience that made me a reflective teacher. I admit that it would be much easier to just teach a lesson and not think about the lesson/student again until the student appears the next week, but that is not how good teachers operate. Each lesson is a new experience in communication — an experience which challenges us to evaluate the successes and failures contained therein. The result of this reflective evaluation then leads to new actions in future lessons. Without reflection, we stagnate and fail to reach our potential for success with the student.


In my work at Concordia University Chicago, I have been actively involved in teacher training in two ways — a piano pedagogy curriculum, and a mentoring program for first-year faculty in our preparatory program. Concordia offers a curriculum that leads to a Certificate in Piano Pedagogy. Included in this curriculum is Practicum in Piano Pedagogy (two semesters), in which pedagogy students are assigned a student from our Preparatory & Community Piano Program. The student teacher and I “team-teach” this student each week. I provide weekly observation feedback to the pedagogy student on the segments of the lesson taught by them.


For the last fifteen years I have offered a “mentoring” program for first-year faculty in the Preparatory and Community Piano Program. These teachers are observed each week throughout the year and receive detailed written evaluations of their work. This program was instituted in an attempt to maintain consistency in teaching philosophies and excellence within our teaching staff.


Giving feedback

Pedagogy students receive their feedback via written evaluation and verbal discussion in a one-on-one conference. The pedagogy students also receive grades on each week’s teaching. First-year faculty receive extensive written feedback with in-person follow-up discussion as needed.


Technology has made observation easier in recent years. Even though I am present at all teaching done by pedagogy students, I also record this teaching. This allows me to be fully attentive to the lesson and not distracted by the sometimes frantic activity of note-taking. I then view the lesson again via the video when I write my notes. This year I intend to share the videos with the pedagogy student via Dropbox. In this way I hope that they will see themselves more objectively and that my critique will have more meaning. It would be ideal to be able to sit and view the video with the pedagogy student. However, the time limits of our conference do not allow that luxury. The time we have must be spent understanding the critique and then preparing for the next teaching experience.


It has always been difficult to find times in my own busy schedule to visit a lesson being given by a first-year faculty member. Because of this, these lessons have always been videotaped and then submitted to me by the teacher. I also find that teachers are more comfortable submitting a video of their work than they are opening their studio doors to observation.



What I see

Objective observation provides a fascinating and illuminating perspective. I find the most common issues for both pedagogy students and first-year faculty involve timing, and sequencing of events. The passage of time is most obvious to the observer. The time stamps on video recordings then give us the data needed to help us realize how much time was spent on a particular activity. Usually the activity that took the most time is also the one that did not go very well. The video often provides evidence of poor preparation of verbal instruction and teaching processes.


However, the most prevalent problem I find in inexperienced teachers is the lack of focus on the student. It takes skill and great awareness to create activities in which the student learns through doing rather than being told. Novice teachers must make a conscious effort to be sure a student is experiencing concepts before they are defined. Likewise, these novice teachers find it hard to realize that the teacher’s response to the student’s playing is less effective and meaningful than the student’s own response. Rarely do I see a student being called upon to evaluate themselves. The success of the student depends on this missing essential. Consider these examples:


  • If we are not certain that the student hears the difference between a good legato and a poor one, how can we expect them to reproduce a good legato at home?

  • In the lesson, did the student actually try out the suggested practice techniques with success? Or, were they simply talked about?


Similarly, student teachers themselves must become aware of the things that go well in their own teaching and why. They cannot base their success on what my evaluation states. The student teacher needs to have their own awareness of the difference between truly successful communication and simply going through activities in a lesson plan.


Creating this type of learning situation for teachers is difficult. It is best achieved in a center like the New School in which teachers “live and breathe teaching” with peers and mentors. My pedagogy students often watch each other in their student teaching and, I hope, discuss the experiences outside of class. I regret that peer observations among my teaching staff are nearly impossible to schedule. I believe we could all learn from one another.


What have we taught?

I would like to think that all teachers would welcome input concerning their teaching. Certainly, hearing the objective perspective of an observer can add an invaluable dimension to one’s self-evaluation. As a pedagogy teacher, I am frequently observed and I look forward to reading the student’s reports on those lessons. Their observations give me insight as I study and evaluate my own work.


Frances Clark was known to say, “We have taught only what the student has learned.” Being observed gives all of us, both experienced and inexperienced teachers, an objective report on whether the student truly responded with understanding. Too often we can complete our lesson plan and think we have taught something when, in reality, we only went through the motions. Perhaps we should all turn the cameras on ourselves to see “what the student has learned” in our lessons!


Craig Sale, NCTM, is Director of the Preparatory and Community Piano Program at Concordia University Chicago, where he also teaches university courses in piano pedagogy.


Sale is an Associate Editor for Clavier Companion magazine and served as Editor for the recently released book, The Success Factor in Piano Teaching by Elvina Pearce. He is the co-author of The Music Tree: Activities 3 and The Music Tree: Activities 4 (published by Alfred Publishing Co.) He has presented workshops for piano teachers across the United States and is a frequent adjudicator at Chicago area events. Sale is a member of the Board of Trustees for the Frances Clark Center for Keyboard Pedagogy.


Sale holds a B. Mus. degree in piano performance from Northwestern University where he studied piano with Donald Isaak, a M. Mus. degree in piano performance from the University of Illinois/Urbana-Champaign where he studied piano with Ian Hobson and piano pedagogy with James Lyke, and a Professional Teaching Certificate from the New School for Music Study where he studied piano pedagogy with Frances Clark and Louise Goss.

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This site is created by the faculty of the New School for Music Study, a division of the Frances Clark Center for Keyboard Pedagogy.

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