I think I have reached the point in my life and career where I can put aside false modesty and self-deprecation and simply say that I am an exceptionally good teacher. It is the thing I most enjoy doing, the thing I am best at, and the thing I have spent the majority of my life practicing, studying, and thinking about. I know lots of people who are better musicians than I am: better pianists, better clarinetists, better conductors, better composers, better music directors. Maybe if I loved these things as much as I love teaching, I would be willing to put in the time it would take for me to reach the highest level of mastery in one of these other areas, but here we are. I will never play with the New York Philharmonic or win a Tony award, but I love what I do, and I love continually striving to be better at it, something I hope that will continue for the rest of my career.
Part of why I love teaching is that it allows me to be a lifelong student. The day I stop learning how to be a better teacher is the day I should hand in my keys and go home. Of course, I learn a lot every day from my students and the daily practice of being in the classroom, but the next biggest contributor to my growth as a teacher has been observing great teachers, as well as great practitioners of other disciplines. As a lover of process, I find it fascinating to try and figure out what makes people exceptional in their work. In doing so, I often discover some key element that I can incorporate into my teaching to better help my students. As I amass this collection of habits and traits borrowed from all sorts of disciplines, it’s like I’m building a super machine—the Captain Planet of teaching, if you will. I have decided to call this machine MEGAPROF.
MegaProf is inspired by every student I’ve ever taught, every teacher I’ve ever learned from, and every colleague I’ve had throughout my career, plus a few friends and family members. MegaProf is an expert in her content area. She is a machine only in her efficacy, but otherwise she is entirely human. She will never stop growing, but t her mission is service, not power or self-glorification. MegaProf is…
1. THE PRESCHOOL TEACHER- Let’s be honest, those who teach the littlest learners pretty much ARE MegaProf. These special humans are building people from the ground up (literally—preschoolers are so close to the ground). While those of us at the higher levels can so easily get distracted by teaching our content that we forget to teach PEOPLE, pre-K teachers’ content IS how to be a person. When I am trying to make decisions about my teaching, I try to keep this big picture in mind: how can I help make my students better people, and better versions of themselves? If my teaching isn’t making them better people, then what am I even doing (and why should they care)??
2. THE STORYTELLER- A great storyteller captivates her audience by being the most interesting thing in the room. Great storytellers vary their pace, their volume, the inflection of their voices. They tell stories not only with their voices but with their eyes, their faces, and their bodies. They LOVE the stories they are telling. They are funny and honest, and they get their audience to FEEL something. I always look forward to the first time a class has an uninhibited emotional response to my teaching, whether that means bursting out laughing, gasping in surprise, or cheering from joy. These are the moments I live for as a storyteller.
3. THE CONDUCTOR- For a music teacher this one is quite literal, but I think it works in a larger sense for a teacher of any discipline. A conductor is like a lightning rod, with the energy of the music flowing from the page, through the conductor, to the players. Teaching is about getting my students excited about the content—letting the energy of the ideas flow through me to light up the room. As a teacher I am also a conductor of my students’ energy, helping draw out their potential so that they can be a light for themselves and others. The non-verbal communication skills I have developed in my conducting practice are also essential in my teaching. While I use my storyteller skills to engage the entire class, I can connect with individual students with a simple look or gesture. I see you. I know you can do this. Don’t think I didn’t hear that.
4. THE COACH- No one would ever expect a sports team to simply run out on the field and master their game without the guidance of a good coach. Of course, all teachers get frustrated when they feel that they’ve tried every trick in their teaching toolbox, and students still aren’t getting it. But the good ones keep trying, because they have a profound sense of their responsibility never to give up on students. Great teachers understand the difference between “I taught it” and “They learned it,” and they know which one is more important. When my grad school professor Dr. Warren Haston gave us instructions about an upcoming assignment, he would always follow it by saying, “And it’s my job to help you.” I came to appreciate that succinct, consistent reminder of his role in our learning process. Of course, we students were responsible as well, but in Dr. Haston’s class there was always the sense that he would provide us with everything we would need in order to be successful. I work hard to develop this sense of trust in my students, so that they know that no one will work harder than I will for their success. (Of course, the best students often prove me wrong.)
5. THE CHEERLEADER- I’ve had many teachers in my life who encouraged and supported me. I remember my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Romasco, breathlessly raving to another teacher about a poem I’d written. My eighth grade English teacher Mr. Zaido used to copy students’ best work in his own beautiful calligraphy and hang it up on the walls. In grad school, it was Dr. Dee Hansen who always cheered on my most ambitious projects with endless enthusiasm. I still stop by her office sometimes when I need a little boost, and I always leave feeling like I could take over the world. Admittedly, this aspect of teaching does not come easily to me. I sometimes need to remind myself to give students a little encouragement along the way, not just when they reach the finish line. It is essential for me to practice gratitude for what each of my students has to offer. I find this is especially important with students whose personalities are very different from my own—those with whom I may not immediately “click.” Of course, if I commit to encouraging all my students to make art, then I am contributing to the creation of more art in the world, and that is always a good thing.
6. THE CEO- Being a great teacher is largely about leadership. A great leader isn’t necessarily the smartest person in the room, or the one with the best ideas, but the one who inspires others through a clear sense of purpose. A good leader sets the tone but does not need to be in charge at all times, because she is so effective at articulating the mission that the entire enterprise is self-propelled, with each individual doing his part. Our goal is your success. In order to accomplish this goal, I’m going to tell you what you need to do, and you need to do it. If you do something that gets in the way of your own success, I’m going to point it out to you. If you start getting in the way of your classmates’ success, then we have a serious problem. Thinking of my classroom in terms of a business helps keep me and my students from taking things too personally. Student misbehavior is not a personal attack against me, but a distraction from the mission. Grades are not value judgments on students but assessments of their progress toward the mission. Of course, if my students are to be convinced of the value of the mission, it must be greater than simply learning the skill, acquiring the information, or passing the test. The mission must be centered on helping my students realize their potential as humans.
7. THE BANKER- One of my favorite pieces of teaching advice came from my conducting mentor Glen Adsit, who said, “You have to make a deposit before you can make a withdrawal.” He was talking about developing relationships with students so that when you need to call them out or get them back in line you don’t risk completely destroying the relationship. This stands in contrast to the “don’t smile until Christmas” philosophy of classroom management. I suppose there are pluses and minuses to both, and it takes a seasoned pro to strike the balance between developing relationships and relinquishing authority. But I do think it is worthwhile to invest in building long-term relationships with students. It’s easy to say that kids should simply respect any adult authority, but that assumes that all adults in our students’ lives are worthy of their respect. (Have you met some of the so-called adults walking around these days?) If I am really committed to my students their success, I will invest in them by working to build them up, because there are already so many forces in the world trying to beat them down.
8. THE DETECTIVE- I like to approach teaching like an investigation. Everything my students do gives me evidence about what they know and understand, and what effect my teaching has. I try to encourage students to see assessments as opportunities to uncover clues that will help me teach them better. If the students feel like we are on the same investigative team, they will be less terrified of tests and more willing to investigate their own learning and share their findings with me. Getting students to think about their thinking is definitely worth the time investment. And staying in information-gathering mode helps ensure that most class time is spent with students doing music, rather than listening to me talk about music.
9. THE PSYCHOLOGIST- My best friend Sarah jokes that she was probably a psychologist in a former life (she’s a professional singer and music teacher in this one), because she loves figuring out what makes other people “tick.” Great teachers are constantly trying to figure out how their students’ minds work. Since I am generally pretty mind-blind, I find it easiest to assume that everyone is doing the best they can. When a student’s best isn’t quite enough, that’s when it becomes my job to help figure out where the gaps are and try to help fill them (see: Detective). It would be the ultimate hypocrisy for me to assume that a student who is not doing the work is simply lazy. Maybe the student is struggling with issues that make it difficult to do schoolwork, maybe he is avoiding work in order to avoid the risk of failure, maybe he is self-sabotaging because he doesn’t think he deserves to succeed. If I assume he wants to succeed, then my job becomes less about assigning blame and more about discovering and helping to eliminate the barriers to that success. Of course, I can’t (shouldn’t) solve all my students’ problems for them, but I can help them identify the problems, come up with workable solutions, and maybe provide a different perspective.
10. THE ENGINEER- My father worked for decades as a structural engineer, which essentially means that he figured out how much steel needed to go into a building so it wouldn’t fall over. I grew up watching him apply a slow, detail-oriented approach to everything, like reading the entire instruction manual cover to cover before plugging in a new DVD player. While I am not as meticulous with DVD players, when it comes to teaching I am my father’s daughter. Planning a sequence of lessons is like constructing a staircase. If the stairs are too far apart, only some students will be able to climb, and the others may get frustrated and give up. If they are too close together, students will get bored. If the stairs are not in the right order, you may go along just fine for a while until you realize somehow you’ve ended up back on a lower stair, and you need to start climbing all over again. My teaching was once described by a colleague as “spoon-feeding,” but I believe that by carefully building the staircase I am not only preparing my students for each next step but teaching them to believe in their abilities. Sure, I could just give them music they’re not ready for and let them suffer through repeated poor attempts that get incrementally better. But I’d rather start by giving them all the tools to succeed, then presenting them with music that fits right in the sweet spot between what they’ve done before and what they don’t yet know how to do. The goal is to give students tasks that are challenging but doable, so they can feel themselves growing while trusting that the staircase underneath them won’t fall down.
11. THE HOSTESS- This one is inspired by my colleague Darlene Zoller, a brilliant choreographer and dance teacher. It is not often that I meet professional artists who are as passionate about teaching as they are about their art form, but within minutes of seeing Darlene work on our first show together, I knew that she was one of those rare specimens. Her love of teaching comes through in the time she takes to learn about her students not just as dancers but as individuals. I remember arriving early one day to a rehearsal and watching Darlene circulate through the room like a party hostess, checking in with each cast member, genuinely interested in how they were feeling. How is your ankle? Did you get some sleep last night? I want to hear more of that story you started telling yesterday. Did you want some more of that mac ‘n cheese? This caring attention to individuals is essential for a great teacher. It’s something that I never feel I am doing well enough, especially with quieter students, so I need to remind myself constantly to find a moment to check in with everyone.
12. THE EMPATHIZER- Empathy isn’t a job, but it is an essential skill for anyone whose job requires working with people. Someone that comes to mind when I think about empathy is Sean Harris, another one of my favorite collaborators. Sean is very open about his daily work to become better at empathy. I’ve never known a director who cared more about his actors. In the audition room, after a particularly head-scratching presentation, Sean reminds himself out loud, “It took a lot of guts for that person to walk in here.” In a production meeting, when one of the creative team mentions that an actor is doing something awkward on stage, Sean will say, “Let’s give him that note but tell him it’s a timing issue because I don’t want him to feel bad about his choice.” Empathy isn’t just about being nice or thinking about someone else’s feelings. It also means being aware of your own feelings, and for a teacher sometimes it also means insulating your students from those feelings. When I am having a particularly stressful week, I make an extra effort to ensure that I don’t put that stress on my students. (I think this is a key trait of a good leader as well.) I also try to model empathy whenever I can, because I think it’s an essential part of being human, and my mission as a teacher is to contribute to my students’ humanity.
13. THE EDITOR- I can’t actually remember who inspired me to be so obsessive about choosing my words, but it has become a sort of game for me, like high-speed chess. I tend to talk pretty quickly, so when my teacher filter is on, my brain is working at warp speed to choose the most effective words. Something I often focus on is using positive instructions rather than negative ones: Take your time instead of Don’t rush. I also like when I can find something to say that has meaning beyond the present situation: Be kind rather than Don’t make fun of her mistake. I work hard to be efficient with my words. If I start every lesson with: “Okay, so, today we are going to…” I’m basically training my students that they never have to listen to the first seven words I say. The more meaningful and efficient my words are, the more learning I can pack into each lesson (or blog post).
14. THE CONSULTANT- I once struck up a conversation on an airplane with a man whose job consisted of taking up month-long residencies in various companies so that he could learn what they do and find ways to help them do it better. As he was explaining to me what his work entailed, I practically burst out of my seat. That’s exactly what I want to do! Of course, my work is with individuals rather than corporations, and I do it through music rather than mission statements and action plans. But essentially, it is the same work. Tell me what you want to accomplish, and I will help you get there. Though music literacy may be my short-term goal, what I’m really try to do is teach my students how to learn, how to think, and how to create art, because I believe that those things will help them have more successful, fulfilling lives. Just like the companies that hired my seat buddy on that plane, my students need to trust that while I am working for them, their goals are my goals.
15. THE HAROLD (IMPROV ARTIST)- Anyone who has ever tried improv theatre knows that a scene shuts down the moment one actor refuses to accept something the other actor offers. “Is that your pet gorilla?” “There’s no gorilla here.” And, scene. “Is that your pet gorilla?” “No…that’s my daughter. Jenny, you remember Uncle Tim, don’t you?” As a teacher, I have to accept whatever my students bring and work with it. And it’s my responsibility to offer something in return, so that we can make something better.
16. THE YOGI- Being fully present in the moment is a challenge for a compulsive planner like me, but I do my students a disservice if I am so wrapped up in my plans that I fail to take note of the things (people) right in front of me. Sometimes being present means ditching the plan and singing a song or playing a game, because that’s what the students need. Sometimes it means we don’t get beyond the first thing in my lesson plan, because students are so excited about learning that they kept coming up with more questions. I realized early in my career that I will never be the “cool teacher”—the one who is super laid-back, whose class is nothing but fun, the one all the kids want to hang out with after school. But within the carefully built, reliable structure of my classroom, I can leave room for play, and when it’s best for the students I can throw out the lesson plan (and by throw, I mean gently place to the side in a neat pile to be retrieved at a later date).
17. THE AIKIDOKA- Aside from reading instruction manuals, another one of my dad’s passions in life is Aikido. Aikido is different from other martial arts because it is purely defensive. The gist of Aikido is that you absorb your attacker’s energy and use it to throw him on the ground. Or, more accurately, you use it to make him throw himself on the ground. Now that I teach college, I don’t often deal with the kind of classroom management challenges that I used to face in public schools, but occasionally a student will question my methods or complain about having to learn things my way. When this happens, I could go on the offense and assert my authority to shut the student down, but I’ve found it to be much more effective just to absorb or deflect that negative energy and keep things positive. If I don’t allow myself to be made into a villain in that student’s mind, it’s harder for the student to keep wanting to fight me. This also works in meetings with contentious colleagues. I’m so glad you brought that up, because I know this is something you feel passionate about, and I want to know your thoughts on how we can find a solution that works for everyone.
18. THE MURALIST- One of my favorite parts of making theater is figuring out how each tiny detail contributes to the overall story, and it’s something I love about teaching as well. It’s like how I imagine a muralist works: you spend most of your time looking at things very close-up, but there’s nothing more satisfying than when all those details come together, and you step back to see the whole picture exactly how you imagined it. As a teacher I constantly have to remind myself to step back from the details and remember the big picture.
19. THE ACTOR- I truly believe you can’t effectively teach someone unless you care about them. And you can’t care about someone unless you like them. And when you can’t bring yourself to like someone, then it’s important to be able to PRETEND.
20. THE PRESERVATIONIST- Because I must refuse to tear anyone down. If I make my work about building people up, the parts that might need to be torn down will take care of themselves.
21. THE PERSONAL TRAINER- Because sometimes you just have to stand next to them shouting,
22. THE GRAPHIC DESIGNER- There’s something to be said for appealing presentation. Those who know me know that making pretty worksheets if one of my nerdiest joys. I find it so satisfying when I can achieve just the right balance of text and white space, divide the page neatly with lines and boxes, and get every tab stop lined up just right. Just like making your bed in the morning can make you more productive during the day, a pretty page can help prime my students’ minds for learning.
23. THE ASSEMBLY LINE WORKER- Teachers often talk about finding multiple ways to present the same information so as to try to reach every student, but so many times over my career I have been reminded in the power of repetition. Sometimes, you just have to keep saying and doing the same thing over and over again until the lesson sticks.
24. THE ASTRONAUT- Because astronauts don’t dwell on problems; they just start working toward solutions. They also have a good perspective on what constitutes a “big problem.”
25. THE ATHLETE- Because they know the value of rest.
I began writing this post out of a feeling of frustration from what is sometimes a lack of regard for the teaching profession in the world of higher education. There are lots of subject matter experts at this level, and many, many great teachers, but academia in general has not found a great way of valuing the skill and art of teaching. As a general rule, when I feel the desire to complain about something, I try instead to make more of the opposite of that thing, so I hope that this feels less like some longwinded boast and more how I intend it, as a sort of love letter to teaching and teachers. The act of creating this list has already inspired new components to MegaProf, but I decided if I ever intended to share this list, I needed to stop at a reasonable number, like 25. If you’ve gotten through the whole thing, thank you for reading! I would be curious about what other teachers might add to the list. I don’t actually know how commenting on this blog works, but if you have thoughts or suggestions, I would love to hear them!