Embrace the Messiness of Teaching

I know very little about music.  A lot of what I do know about music, I’ve learned from students who knew way more than me.  Isn’t it nice when that happens?  But one thing I am really interested in and have thought a lot about is metaphors for teaching and how other careers relate to teaching.  I think we’ve all had the experience of feeling like a stand-up comedian on a really bad night.  (Tap, tap. . . is this thing on?)  Zookeeper comes to mind at times, too.  But I’ve been thinking that conductor might be one of the best metaphors.  Which is funny, because I’m still not sure I understand what a conductor does.  But that’s the point:  good conductors apparently do something (a lot of things) that naive people like me don’t recognize, but which allows the musicians to play their best music.  And I think teaching is a lot like that.  Good teachers are doing an enormous number of subtle things that even they may not realize they’re doing that allow their students to shine and learn.

So what does music have to do with messiness?  Well, the other day I was listening to this episode of the Hidden Brain podcast and they started talking about jazz music and, sure enough, that sounded like teaching to me, too.  Because the topic was messiness and teaching is messy.

The majority of the podcast is an interview with a guest who wrote this book on the benefits of mess.  (He also has a TED talk here.)  And his central example is this jazz piano concert, the Köln Concert (you may well have heard of it but I hadn’t).  Apparently, the piano was in absolutely horrible condition and the musician, Keith Jarrett, wasn’t feeling so hot himself.  But in working around those limitations, Jarrett was able to create amazing music, in fact the best selling piano recording of all time (they play some of it on the podcast or you can hear a bit on Amazon). That’s the crux of his argument that messy situations can be beneficial.  And that’s where the connections to teaching really started to hit me.

Out of tune piano?  Broken pedals?  Try fire alarms, field trips, cell phones ringing, PA announcements, dogs in the hallway, ducks in the window, electricity blackout, soft lockdowns (keep teaching people, it’s only a soft lockdown), teacher has no voice, half the school is at the Cubs’ victory celebration, 9/11, Columbine, the day before spring break, the day after spring break, basically any day in the classroom.  And notice I’m not talking about the physical messiness of a kindergarten classroom because all of those are things I’ve had to deal with teaching high school.  But if teaching is like conducting, and limitations can produce beautiful music, maybe we can embrace the classroom messiness and use it create beautiful learning.

One thing that jumped out at me in the podcast was when the host asked about expertise.  An amazing jazz pianist might be able to make amazing music on a broken piano, but to a novice the piano’s problems would be detrimental.  So should only veteran teachers embrace the mess?  Maybe the idea is most relevant to them.  Or maybe what we can take from the idea of embracing the mess is a way to think about teacher training and the process of learning to teach.  Maybe what we’re trying to do as we learn to teach is to get to the point where we can handle those interruptions.   

Again, I haven’t the faintest idea how a really good musician manages to improv on stage and have it sound good.  But this article helps.  It makes more sense to me that jazz musicians aren’t “making it up” when they improvise, they’re falling back on patterns and strategies.  

Could we teach teaching more like jazz improv is taught?  To expect that it will be a bit different every time.  To embrace the quirks as part of the nature and beauty of the undertaking.  And most of all to teach novice teachers underlying patterns and strategies that can be drawn on over and over again to encourage learning, even in the face of interruptions, malfunctioning technology, and chaos.  To focus less on lesson plans and more on components that shift the flow in the classroom: a single question, a pause, move in, step back.

I have an intuitive sense of some strategies and components born of years and years in the classroom.  Mandated commands are key.  Notecards and extra dry erase markers are your friends.  Movement raises energy.  Silence calms chaos, but don’t attempt silence if there’s already too much chaos.  How much chaos is too much chaos is always an educated guess.  But I’m curious if other teachers could talk about the strategies they use with the precision of this list of improv techniques.  And I’m curious if anyone was taught to teach that way.

So may we all embrace and trust the messiness.  Today’s class is not a rehearsal for the day when we perform a polished and perfectly practiced lesson.  Every class is its own individual, never-to-be-repeated improv performance.

But I do wish future teachers would get a clearer sense of these strategies earlier and not have to struggle to intuit them on their own.  And I wish someone would clean up the Wikipedia teaching methods page so it looked even half as nice as the one on improv.

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