I’ve been teaching so long that I am now teaching the children of people I taught in the 90’s. I was reminded of this fact recently when one of my young teenage students bounded into her lesson dressed in full grunge regalia, complete with flannel shirt, Doc Martens, a velvet choker necklace, and a nose ring. Her hair was long on top and had a close undershave, a style I used to rock back in the day. It went without saying that the song she’d just been listening to on her Ipod had plenty of “Teen Spirit”. I whipped out my Telecaster (the closest Fender relation I’ve got to Cobain’s Jaguar) and we dug into some classic Nirvana. My student sang with all the breath support she’s been working on and I was very proud of her.
A good teacher is, primarily, a good listener. There is a ton of psychology involved in working with students (as in any “meet the public” profession), and a good teacher lets the student speak for themself about their aspirations, goals, and dreams without projecting their own story on top of it. A good teacher is also a great communicator, skilled at phrasing the right feedback or criticism in the right way. A good teacher stays one step ahead of the student’s development, watching the road intently, holding up a sign that says, “yes!”. And a good teacher knows how to push a student forward when they hesitate too long.
My parents were professional symphony musicians, but they also taught music lessons on the side to supplement their modest income. Watching them teach showed me what stamina is. It takes more stamina than you’d think, but there’s also a constant struggle to stave off cynicism and stay inspired. You can teach adults and/or kids, but the latter is far more demanding. Working with young people gives you a clear imperative: keep moving or wither. You have to stay open to new ideas and inspiration, and not get derailed by rigid routines or shipwrecked by nostalgia. In fact, your entire attitude has to be one of fresh curiosity, or you’ll abandon hope and embrace cynicism, a dangerous human poison. Most of what I learned about teaching comes from having endured bad teachers, people made jaded and scornful by life’s disappointments, so drained of enthusiasm that they had nothing left to give and no passion to give it with. I vowed this would never be my fate, and I’ve been lucky enough that it hasn’t.
Teaching is more than a relay of skills. It is a vital transmission of energy that, ideally, resonates throughout a student’s life and sustains them long after the teacher is gone. This experience is a great honor, one that must be earned, but hard work is not enough. Teaching should NEVER be approached as a “fall-back plan” or “supplemental income”, though these things might in fact be the case. Anyone who endeavors to teach should adopt an attitude of devotion. And we, as a society, should be equally devoted to them.
Mostly I’ve taught private singing lessons, occasional songwriting workshops, and helped some beginner guitarists get their callouses up and running. I’ve worked as a singing/ songwriting teacher for various organizations including EMP, Treehouse, and my all-time favorite teaching gig, the Rain City Rock Camp for Girls (full disclosure: the Seattle chapter of RCRC was started by a former student of mine, and I served both on both the founding board and the Strategic Planning Committee).
I’ve also been hired as an independent contractor in both public and private schools in Seattle, and I’ve observed a great difference between the two classroom environments. Private schools have abundant money, time, and community support to help their teachers do their best. But we treat our public school teachers like disposable droids. We’ve been expecting them to switch on, work long hours in over-crowded classrooms with no assistance, and switch off when politicians decide it’s time to “reform” our education system yet again. When a teacher folds from stress and/or age we replace them quickly with another, newer model that can barely stay on top of the increasing workload. And we pay them an amount that, in the wake of significant cost-of-living increases in Seattle (and everywhere), has now crossed the border from insulting to unjust. For the first week of September our public school teachers were striking for better pay, among other vital issues. Unfortunately the compromise that they ultimately reached fell far short of what they deserve. Our kids are back in school now, but as far as worth, wage, and respect are concerned, our teachers are still out in the cold.