Wednesday, November 30, 2022

The Angels in the Details

Over the years, these writings have paid testimony to the joys and challenges, the delights and doubts, the successes and failures of the art of teaching. I’ve kept one foot in the world of children, them teaching me every step of the way what works and what doesn’t, and another foot in the world of teaching teachers, trying to find the language to help my fellow comrades be better versions of their teaching selves. 


In that spirit, today’s lesson reminds us that the whole enterprise begins and ends in love, a love that cannot be learned from the outside, but blossoms forth from within as we share our love for our subject, our craft and the children we teach. Without it, none of the details of effective and dynamic teaching mean much. 


And yet in the middle of the matter, we indeed need to attend to those details with our whole attention and a fine-toothed comb by our side. “The devil is in the details” is a reminder how difficult this work can be and can’t be nudged to the side with a simple “Get thee behind me, Satan.” For example, in teaching a new piece of music, as I did yesterday to four different classes of kids, you need to thoroughly analyze the elements, separate them out, decide the order of teaching them and the method and the pace, always watching with a careful eye where the group is at and what needs to be adjusted— shorten the phrase, slow the tempo, sing then play the part, clarify the sticking technique, etc. etc. and yet again etc. This requires a depth of thought far beyond sticking a notated score in front of a kid and years of experience before you become adept at taking it apart and putting it together. But you can never rest easy. You’re not reassembling a radio, but dealing with living children at all different musical and social-emotional levels. 


But when it works—and it did magnificently yesterday— the music hits its stride, finds its groove, settles into its swing and everyone is refreshed. The children are not only amazed by what they’ve accomplished in bringing the music out, but they feel in the marrow of the bones the rewards of their efforts as the music washes over us all and cleanses the dirt of the everyday world. None of this happens from a teacher who just loves the children, who tells them they are amazing, who lets them express themselves however they want. It needs a teacher willing to confront the devil in the details in order to reveal the angel.


Thanks to the children at the Havergal College School who made my last two days—and hopefully, theirs— so satisfying, fulfilling and fun. On a rainy Toronto morning, I get ready to ride the Greyhound Bus to Rochester for two more days of working with teachers and hopes to encourage them to call forth the angels in the details. 


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