I Guess You’ll Have to Teach!

In my teaching days, I attended an annual music conference where I enjoyed finding new gems in middle school music literature.  It was December of 1994 and I’ll never forget the lesson that I learned while not attending a speaker’s session.  I enjoyed frequenting the displays and speaking with publishers and composers about their new music.  This was very helpful.  One day while speaking with Ann McGinty, (a very popular composer) I shared a problem with my band’s trumpet section because Yuki, my 1st chair trumpet player, had just moved back to Japan and she was my rock.  Without her, my trumpet section’s ability was depleted to a degree that they were my weakest section.  I was in a spot.  I had the students for only one more semester and state contest season was upon us!

In speaking with Ms. McGinty, I expressed that I was searching for a composition that met certain criteria, but didn’t feature the trumpet section much because mine was rather weak.  After lamenting the loss of Yuki and sharing my desire to find an arrangement that would “hide” the less than stellar section, Ms. McGinty said something to me that I’ll never forget.  She said:  “I guess you’ll have to teach.”

After I picked my ego up off of the floor and stumbled through a few excuses, she kindly directed me to some great music; however, her assertion has haunted me ever since.  That is when I learned that I had power in every situation.  That is when I understood that I could make a difference.  Ms. McGinty taught me that where there were weaknesses, there were opportunities.  She reminded me that I needed to roll up my sleeves and get to work on my “problem” because I already had the answer…I had the power… I could teach.

The book, Motivating Students Who Don’t Care by Allen Mendler, contains many great pearls of wisdom and practical strategies for teachers.  One bit of wisdom is found on page 28. “Although we cannot make it impossible for students to fail, good teaching requires that we make it extremely difficult for students to fail.  This attitude enables us to emphasize success while maintaining high expectations.”  Before we can motivate students who don’t care, we as teachers must be motivated to help them.  I know that it is very frustrating as many have tried every trick in their bag and sometimes success just seems to be elusive.  What we sometimes forget is that we are only willing to implement strategies that are within our personal comfort zone.  If we have tried and failed with all of the strategies that we are comfortable trying, perhaps it’s time to try some other ideas.  This premise has application to many situations.

Teaching difficult/struggling learners is a challenge, but it is also an opportunity.  Perhaps those teachers who find their own learning easy have the most difficulty understanding this concept.  Wouldn’t it be nice to teach only students that had great families and were already set up for success?  Wow, think of what I could have done back in 1994 if my students’ previous teacher would have just taught them better when they started out in trumpet class.  I could have done some even cooler stuff if the students were stellar before they came to me.  Think of all of the great performances we could have had if I didn’t have to do any teaching!  (Oops…I forgot that I didn’t conduct the Boston Philharmonic…)

I firmly believe that there are two characteristics that set the very best teachers apart from the good to mediocre teachers.  One of those is that the very best teachers have an undying sense of hope.  That hope is transferred to a belief that as a teacher, one has the power to affect any student’s life that they choose.  The most powerful teachers will continually try different tactics and will never give up…even if he/she doesn’t see success during that school year.  Will you be one of these teachers?

There are no “bad kids,” but there are kids that we may not have reached yet.  You don’t know the impact you have on students until they have had a few years and other adult advocates in their lives to put a few things together.  Learning is as much about timing and prior knowledge as it is about anything else.  Perhaps your job is to simply create that prior knowledge about character and effort.  Maybe the experience of having SOME success will stick with a child and s/he will subconsciously remember that with effort comes success.

Teaching is a process, not a product.  We will not and we cannot expect students to fail; however, some students will.  My question to you is: what impact will you have on that student’s life in 3, 7, or 9 years?  I promise that you do have an impact on that student.  I learned from Ms. McGinty that teaching wasn’t always fun, but teaching is a must.  If I am unhappy with a situation involving students, I have the power to teach.  I am a teacher.  In the end how much impact you have on each student, especially those who are less served by their families or your colleagues, is really up to you.  You have great powerYouare a teacher.

Praise Is Simply the Best Motivator

Circle of Success

How many teachers would like to know the secret to motivating students?  Certainly many teachers are gifted in this area; however it seems difficult to reach every kid.  Most teachers can catch students when they are not meeting expectations and work with students to let them know that they need to work harder, but is that truly motivational?  What would you give for all students to be intrinsically motivated to learn YOUR SUBJECT to the best of their ability?

 I once read a book titled Whale Done! by Ken Blanchard, which shares the training techniques for killer whales.  The book advocates that there are only four responses to any behavior.  One can simply ignore a behavior, they can respond negatively, they can re-direct the subject, or they can praise the behavior.  Realizing that the first three work very poorly for killer whales, trainers implement the “praise plan” when helping to teach the huge animals.  It is also easy to see that the negative response simply won’t work for an animal that can eat you.  I don’t know if the trainers at Sea World ever say “Bad killer whale!” while shaking their finger and scowling.

 Now understand, they don’t praise every behavior of the whale; they only praise the behaviors that they are trying to teach.  Not only that, they set the whale up for success initially.  In order to teach the whale to jump over a rope, they simply lay a rope across the bottom of the tank and praise it every time it swims over it.  Incrementally raising the rope and ALWAYS praising the whale eventually motivates the whale to jump very high out of the water and over the rope when it is presented to them.

 O.K., they praise the whale with fish….  I’m not sure that a whale can learn pride in a job well done so a simple verbal praise won’t work very well for them.  I think we can take a lot from that story and apply it to what we do with students every day.  I certainly don’t mind jump-starting some students with an extrinsic motivational technique (a.k.a. candy), but how will that fair for them when they are in the work place someday and their boss doesn’t give candy?  Eventually, we must work to help students become intrinsically motivated. 

 I believe in “the circle of success.”  You must initially set some students up for success.  Once they achieve success, PRAISE THEM.  When they are praised consistently (and fairly) they will be motivated to work just a little bit harder.  Working harder will foster more success, which we will PRAISE THEM for.  With constant and proper praise, students will be motivated to work harder.  We can only teach students to be responsible if we can teach them the power of hard work.  Students mostly want to please the caring adults in their lives.  You’ve already got the caring thing down.  Let’s all work on catching students doing the right thing.