Teaching is unlike any other job; it requires great compassion, respect, leadership, flexibility, patience, and of course, knowledge. A great teacher is responsible not only for guiding learning in a particular subject, but for also instilling positive values in students, reinforcing their self-worth, and serving as a mentor as they grow into professionals. My teaching philosophy rests on six pillars: Building Trust, Finding Individual Passions, Commitment to Excellence, Education as a Lifelong Process, and Respect and Compassion.
From the moment I meet a new student, I begin the process of getting to know them as an individual--their interests and passions, goals and concerns. I believe that the best learning happens when students feel that a teacher is truly invested in their success, so I make it a priority to engage with them on a personal level first, before working on any academic materials. To me, this type of engagement is equally important in private music instruction and in the academic classroom, where some students may feel overlooked or underprioritized.
Trust is the foundation of any relationship, and that is certainly true of the student-teacher dynamic. If students do not feel that the people who are supposed to be leading them are invested in their success, they will not rise to meet the challenges set before them. I have found this to be especially true amongst minority students, many of whom face challenges in their home lives that lead to difficulties in the learning environment. In my experience, learning really only begins in earnest once I establish a rapport with these students, which takes time, patience and perseverance.
While many students are eager to learn, they are sometimes wary of accepting new ideas or ways of doing things that are different from what they know. My style of teaching cello is based on transparency; I explain not only what to do, but why we do it that way. This helps students to understand the thought process behind the execution of a particular skill, yet it also leaves open the possibility of students finding their own way of doing things. Rather than being an inscrutable teacher with seemingly arbitrary rules, I push my students to learn about the mechanics of their own instrument and how the body interacts with it, so that they have a solid, healthy foundation on which to build more advanced skills.
Finding Individual Passions
Motivation does not come easily to all students; some require extrinsic factors to feel they are on the right track and can keep moving forward, and others struggle to find subjects in which they are interested enough to commit to. I work hard to get students excited about the materials they are learning, and to feel confident enough in their progress to push to higher levels.
For private students, I typically begin a year by asking each student what goals they have in mind, what techniques they might like to learn, and what pieces they are interested in working on. I then try to fit this to meet my own expectations and goals for the student, arranging music to fit their needs, or developing a plan to build towards a particular technique.
Similarly, in the classroom I find that the best way to excite students is to get them involved in deciding what they are going to learn by having a dialogue about what subjects and units of study to cover, what types of projects or assignments should be used for assessment, and even the type of learning we do in the classroom (lecture, discussion, breakout groups, etc.). Having the students take ownership in the curriculum is a great motivator, and changes the perception of the purpose of the class overall—they begin to see the education as an investment in themselves, rather than knowledge being forced upon them. I have found that allowing for this kind of student input creates a sense of inclusiveness and promotes a shared stake in the outcome of the class.
Commitment to Excellence
I have always held my students to the same high standard that I set for myself, whether in academic or extracurricular settings. I find that setting the bar high early on sets the stage for a more intense and productive learning environment, and helps students to feel that their education does not come freely or easily, but is an investment in themselves that requires hard work and dedication.
Anything learned in the classroom will be lost if it is not reinforced at home. Therefore, I believe teaching students to practice (or study) well is perhaps the most important thing I do as a teacher. A commitment to excellence begins at home, and requires incredible focus and attention to detail. My lessons are centered around getting students to pay attention to what they are doing--to pay attention to their sound, to their bodies, to how they look and feel, so that they can recreate and build on this at home. Rather than telling students every time they do something wrong, I ask questions so they analyze what they are doing and why things happen, allowing them to self-correct. Once they are aware of what they are doing in the lesson, practicing at home simply becomes a continuation of the lesson process.
Still, having high expectations without an understanding of individual student's strengths and weaknesses invites disappointment for both the teacher and the student. Each student begins the class at a different place, and to expect that each will end up at the same place is unrealistic and unhelpful for individual growth and development. I find that focusing on individual growth and goals, rather than setting blanket assessment goals for an entire class, gives students the space to become more confident in their own abilities without feeling like they have to compete for grades or attention in class. This is especially the case for students with learning disabilities like dyslexia, for which the methods of instruction and assessment might be adjusted, but expectations for dedication on the part of the student remain the same. Overall, I aim to uphold a standard of excellence in my students and keep them challenged so that they in turn feel worthy enough to hold themselves to a high standard.
Education as a Lifelong Process
It is no secret that the American education system has gradually shifted towards emphasizing assessment, rather than the process of learning itself. My students in grade school through high school (and even through college) are often so stressed by the pressures put upon them that they are unable to fully open up to the knowledge being explored, and are therefore likely to forget it as soon as the exam/final paper/assessment has passed. Thus, the system of continual assessment is not only detrimental to the learning environment, but also affects students long-term, as they miss out on the skills and knowledge that could have been absorbed and assimilated in the classroom. For me, it is important to emphasize the skills we build in class—critical thinking, logic, reasoning, research skills, speech, debate, and much more—allowing dates and facts to become secondary to the goal of developing students as individual thinkers. To that end, I find it much more effective to employ dynamic, interactive learning spaces and creative assignments that keep students on their toes, but not unduly stressed about judgement of their competency.
Beyond emphasizing skills over facts, I try to instill in my students a mantra that I've learned over the years from studying music, and cello in particular: that learning doesn't end when the class is over! The purpose of developing skills and igniting individual passions is so that when the instructor is no longer there to guide you, you have the know-how to pursue your own interests, whether that entails picking up a new instrument, listening to a new genre of music, or delving into a topic of particular interest. This emphasis on lifelong learning also helps to take some of the pressure off the student in the short-term, shifting the focus from "did I study this topic enough?" to "how can I continue to explore this after the term ends?" I try to ignite a passion for learning in my students that extends beyond the classroom, and provide them with the tools so that they can continue this process at any age.
Respect and Compassion
One of my main goals as an educator is to help students to develop a deep love and respect for themselves and those around them. I work to create a learning space where all kinds of ideas are respected and considered with avid interest, and work to create this space outside of the classroom as well. I find that one-on-one meetings with students are a great way to make sure students are feeling valued, and to check in with them about their goals and any potential concerns. Ensuring that students feel safe and supported in the classroom helps to foster a more robust and respectful learning environment, where students aren't afraid to share their knowledge or make mistakes in front of their peers.
Overall, I aim to help students find the dignity and value in their own self-worth, through validating their own ideas but also encouraging them to push outside their comfort zones to explore new ideas in new ways. By working to create a noncompetitive but dynamic classroom environment, students gain a greater ability to engage with the world around them in a richer, healthier way. Furthermore, it is important to me to reinforce the connections made inside the classroom outside of it, as well as creating a space in which personal, non-class-related problems can be addressed with students. I take seriously my role as a mentor, and work to make sure that my students know that I am invested in their success, both in their personal and professional lives.