Teaching is unlike any other job; it requires great compassion, respect, leadership, flexibility, patience, and of course, knowledge. Sometimes the relationship between teacher and student is as important as that between parent and child, as the teacher becomes responsible not only for guiding learning in a particular subject, but for also instilling positive values in the students, reinforcing their self-worth, and acting as a mentor.
My teaching philosophy rests on five pillars: Building Connections, Finding Individual Passions, Commitment to Excellence, Education as a Life-Long 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, concerns and fears. In my experience, the best learning happens when students feel that someone is 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. I have had a great deal of experience working with students one-on-one as a private instructor of cello, and work to apply this personal approach in the academic classroom as well.
I find that many students, especially those from a lower-socioeconomic status group, minority background, and/or undocumented immigrants, have issues with trusting their instructors. They may feel that the people who are supposed to be leading them in the classroom are not invested in their success, either short-term or long-term, and this makes motivating and inspiring them difficult. My students in Dorchester and Somerville have typically fit into one or more of these groups, and often face numerous challenges in their private, home lives that can lead to difficulties in learning environments. I have found that learning really only begins in earnest once I establish a rapport with these students, which takes time, patience and perseverance. I have learned at least as much from these students as they have learned from me.
It is important to me that connections made inside the classroom are reinforced outside as well, and allowing for a space in which personal, non-class-related problems can be addressed. 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.
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 employ a number of methods to help students feel more excited about the materials they are learning, and to feel confident enough in their progress to push to higher levels. I find that the best way to do this is to get students involved in what they are going to learn--having a dialogue about what subjects and units of study we should 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.
In the past, areas in which I have encouraged student input on the scope and structure of the music course include:
• Content: identifying non-canonical composers, specific works to discuss or perform, and/or different music genres to study (esp. non-Western art music);
• Course organization: discussing how to organize the course materials in a coherent, interesting way, whether chronologically, regionally, by genre type, or combinations thereof;
• Classroom style: crafting a dynamic learning space that encompasses lectures, discussions, in-class projects, performances, and more;
• Assessment: choosing how students will be assessed on their learning, including but not limited to individual or group projects, standard exams, take home tests, essays, or something more out-of-the-box.
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 extra-curricular 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.
That said, 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 Life-long Process
It is no secret that the trend in the American education system has gradually shifted towards continual assessment, rather than on 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 constant 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 versus facts in the classroom, 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.