One of the greater pleasures of my life is having crossed paths with the great jazz vibraphone player, Stefon Harris. Stefon is that rare musician who is not only the nicest guy you’ll ever meet, but a remarkable virtuosic player who has kept music connected with a humanitarian vision. Some genius musicians who spent their childhood developing their talent neglected their social-emotional growth. They can melt your heart while playing the piano and then be a complete jerk when they get up from the bench. Keith Jarrett comes to mind.
But Stefon has both paid his dues practicing his instrument and practicing compassion and empathy. He is personable, articulate and always searching beyond merely playing notes. He has come to my school several times and worked with my kids and each time has been precious. At my workshop yesterday, I showed a video of him playing with my 4th graders and then another from a TED talk he gave titled “There Are No Mistakes.” It occurred to me—and he would be delighted to hear it—that if you substituted the word “teaching” for “jazz” in much of his talk, the principles would apply. A few choice quotes:
• The only mistake is that I’m not able to perceive what someone else did.
• Every mistake is an opportunity in jazz. We don’t micromanage in jazz—it limits the possibilities..
• Be patient, listen to what going on and to pull from something that’s going on around me. When you do that, you engage and inspire the others and they give you more and gradually it builds.
These are precisely the thoughts I have always emphasized training teachers. “Watch the children” I tell them. “They will let you know when you’re on the right track. You need to constantly observe how they react to the opportunities you give them to express themselves, perceive how they’re reacting and then yourself react accordingly. None of this can be covered in a lock-step system of teaching, because it is your very attachment to the system that blocks you from seeing and hearing what’s going on.”
Teachers are notorious micro-managers and yes, we have to plan assiduously and with great detail. But if we focus too much on our plan and miss the mistakes both we and the children make, we are limiting the opportunities for real education.
And finally, that beautiful idea of “pulling from something that’s going on” rather than “pushing my agenda.” It requires deep listening, a measure of humility and a deep trust that others have something worthwhile to offer. And let me confess here: I can be obsessed as anyone with my own self-preoccupied ideas and though I do believe that the countless hours put into crafting them—extensive reading, writing, reflecting, living them in my teaching—gives them a greater value than someone’s ideas based on nothing more than what they’ve been served by their church, parents or Fox News, I have to remember to shut up and listen and even when the notes offered are discordant, consider the grain of truth buried there and change the music to accommodate them. I can do that effortlessly in my classes with children, but have a harder time when talking with folks who vote against their own self-interest.
And why stop at applying these ideas to teaching? What about political leadership? What about the old idea of leader as servant, pulling from the needs and ideas of the people one represents, listening to their concerns, hearing their suggestions, considering what they can give and gradually building solutions together? Isn’t that the height of the democratic promise?
I needn’t note how far we from that when led by a pathologic narcissist incapable of hearing anything but the echoes of his own deluded grandiosity. But of course, I just did note it because any long-term solution depends upon a clear vision about how to develop a human being capable of caring and compassion, someone who not only puts in the long hours to develop her or himself, but then can open the conversation with a listening ear and pull from other’s experience to create a community of compassion. Thanks to Stefon for the reminder.