Saturday, July 21, 2018

Restless Dissatisfaction: A Primer on Ping-Pong

I believe it was in Australia some years back where I was giving a workshop for classroom teachers. It was a small group, so instead of my usual silent beginning teaching through gesture, movement, body percussion, etc., I asked them what questions they had about their teaching, what they felt needed some attention. I was shocked when most couldn’t come up with an answer. If had been honest, I would have said, “In that case, I have nothing to teach you.”

Because the people who come to Orff workshops are people with questions, people not entirely satisfied with how their last class or last year of classes went, people who sense they’re missing something and are seeking something more. Without that quality of restless dissatisfaction, well, why bother giving up a Saturday or a week or two in summer to go to a workshop?

I met a Conservatory teacher from Portugal in the Barcelona workshop who had that quality of dissatisfaction with the way he and his colleagues were teaching and was in search of something.
He had gone to Finland and Italy to see how teachers taught there and now was here in Spain looking into the Orff approach. He lamented that change was so slow or non-existent where he worked, but adamant that some kind of change was needed. We had an interview set-up, but unfortunately didn’t have time and postponed it to a future e-mail conversation.

But what would I say to teachers who are content with what they do? More importantly, what would I say to teachers who are content with what they do, but shouldn’t be? And the honest answer is, “Nothing.” Without that quality of search, of questioning, of restless dissatisfaction, nothing I could say or do or show would convince them to change. In fact, they would be threatened by it because it would mean admitting some failure (usually not their fault, they’re just teaching as they have been taught), it would mean much work ahead to break the pattern of ineffective or harmful teaching, it would demand a quality of self-reflection that strangely, weirdly, uncomprehendingly, from my point of view, many people simply don’t have.

But if there was a glimmer of hope to inspire them to consider something new, I’d start with something like this imaginary conversation.

Me: Are the students happy in your class?

Them: Happy? I don’t know. And frankly I don’t care. I’m not there to make them happy, I’m there to teach them music.

Me: Are you happy with the level of their musicality?

Them: In general, no. They’re lazy, they don’t practice, they’re sloppy, they don’t listen to me.

Me: Are you having fun teaching them?

Them: What do you think? Of course not! Like I said, they’re mostly miserable students. But hey, I have to pay the rent.

Me: Have you ever played ping-pong?

Them: What? Why are we talking about ping-pong?

Me: In ping-pong, the whole fun of the game is that you send a ping and your opponent sends back a pong. The more challenging your ping, the more surprising their pong back. The more challenging their pong, the more satisfaction you have with you return your ping. That’s what makes the game fun, engaging, challenging and satisfying, regardless of the score at the end.

Them: What’s your point?

Me: Imagine you’re standing at the table sending pings to your opponent and they never pong back. Maybe because your ping is too challenging or not challenging enough or they can tell you don’t care about the game so they don’t care to engage. How fun would that be?

Them: I don’t know. I hate ping pong.

Me: Obviously. And clearly you don’t want to be convinced that it might be fun. But for the sake of your students, I’ll tell you that if you’re willing to accept classes that aren’t fun for you to teach and willing to accept that the students are bored, unengaged, stressed, miserable in your classes, you are hurting yourself and your hurting them. The first sign that this game is a dangerous one is to notice that your students don’t like it very much and instead of blaming them, consider what you’re doing to make everyone so miserable. If you can even for one moment imagine that your life and theirs could be so much happier if you learned how to create and teach classes that are fun, challenging, engaging, effective, your life and theirs would be changed for the better. And here’s another secret. Their music will be so much better, their motivation to practice will be so much better, their ability to express clearly their music will be so much better. You’ve spent so much time convincing yourself that the only way to arrive at musical expertise and proficiency is through tedious practice, angry Whiplash teachers, beating expression into listless students playing unexpressive notes read from black dots on paper that you’ve made one of life’s great joys and beauties into something ugly that makes everyone miserable. In your heart of hearts, is that what you really want?

Them: Do you have any ping-pong paddles?

Well, that last response? In my dreams. Probably the more common answer would be:

Them: Yup. Now get the hell out and go play your stupid ping-pong game somewhere else.

Thanks to the thousands of restlessly dissatisfied teachers who have shown up at the Orff workshop doorstep brimming over with questions and dedicating themselves to a lifelong search for the answers. Now who serves first?

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