Sunday, December 11, 2016

Teaching the Unteachable


At the end of our Orff Intern Program, the Interns—Michele, Jessica, Lila and Victoria—have been teaching our classes. We have the rare luxury of watching them, taking notes, seeing our kids with new eyes and then reflecting on the lessons taught, discussing what worked, what needed tweaking, what surprises emerged, what little glimpses of beauty came forth. Having trained teachers my whole professional life, mostly through workshops and summer courses, this without question is the most satisfying and thorough experience I’ve had—and hopefully the Interns too.

No surprise, but it turns out that teaching a good lesson is extraordinarily complex. There are a hundred things that can go wrong and often anywhere from 1 to 99 of them do. The science of good teaching demands that we clearly analyze the details, what we forgot to take into account, what needs more time, what less and so on. And so my critique of the lesson is often simply an observation of what happened and in conversation with the Intern, an analysis of what might have, could have, should have been done differently. And what was perfect exactly as it was.

It’s all well and good to have the luxury of these kind of witnessed lessons and guidance of the master teacher who has been down the road a few thousand times before. But the thing I’m most looking for in the teaching is the thing that will carry the teacher far beyond this training and guarantee a constant march toward mastery of that elusive and needed thing called the artful lesson. I’m looking for the quality that will be a lifelong mentor to the teacher, the guide at their side whispering in their ear class after class, “Pay attention to this.”

So when the Interns taught two classes in a row, it was the second class that revealed whether that whispering voice is already fully at their side. When I saw an instant shift in the lesson plan (with the second group coming in as the first was leaving), I knew that they had learned from their real teachers what needed attention. And cliché as it might sound, those real teachers are…  why, the children themselves. And the teacher noticing how the kids reacted and what they understood and how engaged they were and what the quality of the music and dance released was. 

That is the unteachable gift of the gifted teacher—the one who notices and reacts, who cares enough to notice and is smart enough to react. I don’t know whether those who don’t have that faculty can be taught to cultivate it. Certainly they could be encouraged to inch closer and be given the tools to do so. But I do know that those who instinctively have it (and I'm pleased to report that all four of the Interns "have it!") are on a path that they can walk without the constant presence of a physical mentor because they recognize their true teachers—the children at their feet. 

Marine-biologist-turned-poet David Whyte talked about studying his subject through books and tests and the like at University and then going to the Galapagos Islands to work. There he discovered to his astonishment that none of the animals he was studying had read the textbooks! He had a choice of insisting they behave as the books said they would or letting go of his notions and actually meeting them on their own terms. 

Don’t you think that goes with teaching as well? All the nonsense about the perfect lesson only works with perfect children and flies out the window once real kids come into the class. It’s a great shock at first and then a great pleasure to meet the children on their own terms, to plan every lesson meticulously down to the last detail as if the children will behave as dependably as pre-tuned notes on the piano or choreographed steps in the dance and then let the real dance and the music fly. Are the kids crashing into each other in the dance, horribly out of tune in the song? So be it. Now the real work begins. Adjust, refine, simplify, make more challenging, back to square one or leap ahead to square ten. I can’t tell you sitting here in my room far away from your class. Let that inner guide who notices, cares to notice and is smart enough to problem-solve take it from there.

And don’t get me wrong. Though certain things about good teaching may indeed be unteachable, still I’m committed to teach them. Thanks to the Interns for the opportunity of make the attempt. Anyone out there want to sign up for next year?

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