Philosophy of Teaching

Teaching is a human endeavour.

Many people feel called to teach, and I believe that I am one of those people. However, all students are also called to learn. In truth, all teachers were once students, and so all students will become teachers, either formally or informally. Although there are as many successful teaching methods and tools as there are teachers and students, the objective meaning of teaching and learning seems to lie at a more fundamental level than simply how we do it. And, as much as we rightly and highly value the mastery of information and skills, (and their application), what we as teachers and students truly desire is to be educated, the result of embracing values that transcend the material we study. This endeavour, to create thoughtful, critical, compassionate and passionate individuals, crosses all disciplines, all methodologies, all approaches, and is the foundation of all teaching.

Learning is continuous, multi-layered and unique to each individual; it occurs in ways which we can observe (through examinations, assignments, and oral communication) and in ways that we cannot (wisdom, maturity, passion, intellectual development, thirst for knowledge). Sometimes it occurs swiftly and easily, at other times painfully or slowly. Sometimes the evidence of learning only becomes truly apparent many years down the road. I feel that my responsibility and joy as a teacher is to encourage and manage this intense, constantly unfolding and often chaotic landscape of learning, to shape it into something safe, responsible, manageable, and exciting, and to show each student that the light at the end of the tunnel is rewarding only because there is a tunnel in the first place.

We teachers hold in our hands the power not only of evaluating our students’ performances but the tremendous responsibility of deserving their trust and confidence. These are the two foundations of my teaching, and they manifest themselves in concrete ways:

Fairness: My syllabus very clearly lays out where grades are earned, and I have created a document entitled “What Grades Mean in Music History” so that students can understand the basis and criteria for evaluation. I give a variety of assignments so that students can help to maximize those areas in which they feel most comfortable and stretch themselves in those that they do not, and I give voluminous commentary on written work to show them exactly where they succeeded, and what they need to work on. I have only on a handful of occasions during my entire teaching career had a grade questioned. I tell students the truth about their work.

Respect: Teachers, whether they like it or not, are models for their students. If I wish my students to respect me, I must respect them first. I encourage their feedback on the difficulty and nature of assignments and tests, I continually ask how they are keeping up with weekly work and I reassure them regularly through word and example that no questions are bad questions. I extend to them the same courtesy as I would to my colleagues: I stick to the schedule I have made, I try not to hold them late for class meetings (except when a particularly lively discussion or wonderful piece of music is not quite over!) and I return their written work in a timely manner. I try to always listen to and respond to them.

Accountability: When I return from an academic conference or a research trip, I tell my students about it, what is new and exciting in my field and where new research is heading. I have found them always interested in this, not only because I considered them worthy of knowing such information, but because it gives them trust that what I teach them is sound. I make it clear that I am open to all kinds of questions and if I cannot answer them on the spot I will do so as soon as I can. I often forward to them online newspaper articles on subjects we are studying, not as a requirement, but to read for their own interest. I also feel that accountability extends to the wider university community. I try to find out what courses in my department use mine as a prerequisite and ask the professors of those courses where they would like the students to be, what skills and knowledge they want covered by the time the students reach their doors.

Encouragement: I ceaselessly tell my students that the limitations they may see for themselves are transitory and of a limited duration. I always try to remind my students that the struggles, frustrations and mistakes they often experience in learning are identical to those I experienced. I also remind them that some day they may stand in front of a university classroom and lecture on this same subject. What will they bring to the material, how will their approach be different? When I see each of them as myself at some time in the past, and when they see each of themselves in me, we all understand that there are no limits to what they can learn.

My students have given me all the reasons and all the tools I need to teach them. I try always to put myself in their place as I ask them to put themselves in my place. Although I have employed many successful strategies in the classroom, I have felt that some of the most meaningful and rewarding moments in teaching come from the often unexpected failures of that endeavour. Some of my best evaluations are from students who have failed my courses. They show no bitterness, no blame, and more importantly, no shame. They maturely take responsibility for what they have done and for what they have not done, and their positive feedback is often the most important to me because I feel that with them perhaps more than others I have succeeded in instilling the values of responsibility, maturity, and accountability that I strive for in myself, and that to accept their own failure is to trust me.

To write about a teaching philosophy lends itself easily to the listing of methods, of outcomes, and objectives, but threatens to let me feel that I have figured it out, that somehow I have already got it right. To try to counteract that as much as I can I have been guided in preparing this statement relying heavily on the anonymous feedback of students over the years. The only authentic measure or even impression of my teaching can really only come from my students.

The evaluation of teaching effectiveness has usually rested on a combination of the evidence of successful learning and the observations of those who have learned. These parameters have rightly been the foundations of assessing teaching success and, particularly, excellence. However, we cannot escape the inevitability that if not all material, at least all learning, is eventually used by real people in real situations, it informs who we are as human beings and influences how we will act and think every day. What we try to shape through teaching is not results but people with whom we want to live, work, and share our world.

In some ways my job is the easiest in the world, because I teach the most interesting subject, music history. Music, as much as we can learn about its acoustical foundations, its theoretical underpinnings, its cognition, and its many uses over time, remains a fundamental and human mystery, the highest manifestation of the human experience. I consider it the greatest honour that I have been called to serve it and my teaching is a manifestation of that awe and gratitude. If I have been able to communicate this to my students, then regardless of grades earned or courses completed, I have achieved my goals.