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what I learned about teaching from a hamster...

Michael Fox

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Published: September 24, 2014 at 11:53 PM [UTC]

A few days ago, my wife and I became the proud owners of a very adorable longhaired hamster, mostly not by choice. A neighbor knocked on our door and handed us a shoebox of the adorable but feisty creature, telling us she had too many animals and was looking for a nice home for this one. We said yes, even without having any idea what we were doing. I quickly became enchanted by how she looked up at me with big black eyes, her nose moving up and down rapidly as she explores her surroundings. We re-named her Hildegard, to honor the great medieval composer, artist, writer, and all around amazing, creative soul St. Hildegard of Bingen.

Anyway, it turns out that hamsters are nocturnal creatures, so her playful movements and insatiable curiosity subsides each morning, so she spends most of the time during the day curled up in a ball sleeping in the corner. A couple days ago, she did wake up in the middle of the day and start approaching her half-empty food dish. I lovingly gave her more food and was once again enthralled with her somewhat clumsy stretching as she then went for the water bowl. In a fit over how adorable this was, I reached my hand in the cage and tried to stroke her back. In a gesture that seems obvious in hindsight, she pushed my hand away and turned over. I tried to rub her belly, and then – ouch! The cute fur ball, named for a twelfth century nun bit my finger!

Now obviously, Hildegard was not being mean, and did not bite me out of maliciousness. I was bothering her when she wanted to go back to sleep, and she was trying to communicate this in the only way she knew how. If I had decided she was being “bad,” and that I had to punish her, it would have accomplished nothing but damaging the relationship and trust I was trying to build. I simply had to learn a new rule – don’t bother the hamster when she’s sleeping.

I mention this because it shows a very important principle I’m starting to realize in teaching – the importance of honoring a student’s perspective, and clear communication in the learning process. Just like my new hamster friend, children and adult beginners often have a better grasp on their abilities then we give them credit for. We ignore or stifle this ingrained ability at our (and our student’s) peril.

The goal of teaching is not to break down a student and recast him or her in my own image, but rather, to be a guide, helping them walk down a path in such a way they recognize that they have really made it this far by themselves, not because I carried them. I, as a teacher, don’t want to be viewed as above my students, but rather, I want to listen to you carefully, honoring and shaping your own intelligence and creativity to do what makes sense to you.

I remember as a young beginner sometimes seeing my teachers as these god-like “experts” who would tell me everything I had to do to achieve mastery, but I quickly realized that the majority of how I made progress was actually up to me. Simply being told how to hold the bow or what notes to play was not enough, I had to spend hours practicing, and figure things out for myself. I needed the guidance of someone more experienced then me, but I also needed space to struggle through music on my own, so the knowledge became my own, not only my teachers. I would not have stayed in music if I was primarily externally motivated (trying to please my parents or teachers), but I had to learn how to become internally motivated (doing music for my own sake, out of love for it.)

Thus, today, as a teacher, I consider it essential that I listen to my students. Different people have different tolerance levels, and I am continually trying to strike a balance so a student feels challenged, but not discouraged. This means cultivating a climate of mutual trust, being always open to feedback, free to move at the pace that works for you, discovering new ways of practicing and understanding a concept until it finally “clicks.” Particularly with younger students with short attention spans, I have discovered that little good comes out of forcing them to play a song or exercise “one more time” after it’s clear they’re bored and unable to concentrate on it anymore. Instead of berating their lack of discipline, I find it works far better to honor the cues they’re sending, tell to practice it this week, and go on to a new activity or song.

For this reason, I personally have no hard and fast rules for or against things like using tapes as temporary frets to let a student know where to put the fingers down. For some, it may get in the way of learning to find the correct pitch by ear, but for others, it can be extremely helpful in developing muscle memory to know where the fingers should go. Everyone learns a little bit differently, and my job is to respect that as I figure out what is the most helpful for the areas in which you need to grow. Just like in my budding relationship with Hildegard the hamster, methods will only take me so far. To truly be a part of the mentoring and empowering process of teaching, you must listen to the mind of the one being taught, and spend all your energy lighting their fire.

Posted on September 25, 2014 at 1:29 PM
I wish you were my teacher.

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