Teaching & Learning

My Best Teacher or His Best Student?

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This may be one of the hardest blogs I’ve ever tackled.  It began innocently enough.  I made a comment to my wife about a blog specific to my three favorite teachers for National Teacher’s Day (May 5, 2015).  When she asked who those teachers were, I told her.  And then she disagreed with me.

Wait, what?  How could any person, even my wife, say that my favorite teachers were not my favorite at all?

JKSimmonsThe teacher in question was actually at the top of my list too.  My #1 teacher.  It’s a little ironic that I talk about him here and now, because a movie just came out that might help you understand more.  In the movie, “Whiplash” JK Simmons (who won an Oscar for his performance) plays a driven, passionate, and merciless music teacher.   He actually conducts with his fist, nonverbally attacking students who are sharp / flat or behind tempo, before verbally devastating them once the song is finished.  And while not a complete doppelganger to my music teacher, his portrayal is awfully close.

I actually met my music teacher in Jr High school, when I walked over from a Charter school to the public school next door for band.  I’d played the trumpet since 4th grade with a modicum of success, winning some small awards here and there, playing at a wedding or two, etc.  I was lucky that it came easily to me, as I didn’t really enjoy practice all that much, but truly did enjoy performing.  And I had some degree of musical talent – I have what some call “perfect” pitch and I can keep a beat.  So, I was pretty successful without much effort (which in Jr High was the perfect recipe in my book…).

Enter my music teacher.  (You may be wondering why I’m not naming him.  Two reasons.  Firstly, I wouldn’t want any hurt feelings on the off, off, off chance he might see this.  But second, his story doesn’t have a happy ending.  He was eventually arrested for some inappropriate behavior at a school…ugh.)  But in 7th grade, this teacher, who was one heck of a director and music theorist, found a better-than-average player to spotlight and the experience was good all around.  Our orchestra won awards and played above our means, he shined, and I was given solos and features.  So, when I heard my teacher was leaving the Jr. High for the High School I would attend, I was thrilled.

But things changed immediately upon arrival at my high school.  I came to my summer, Freshman band rehearsals a bit late – my family took an untimely vacation – but my teacher had already started to ‘motivate’ the other students by telling them a ‘ringer’ was coming.  So, I was disliked by fellow band members before setting foot on campus.  Eventually it evened out.   And over the four years of my high school music career, there was a lot of success.  Our band won awards – local, regional, and national – which really were remarkable for teenagers.  We competed in band, jazz, marching band, and orchestra, and often came out on top.  Individually, I worked my way to the top of the trumpet section over that time and by my senior year was a definite leader in the organization.  In turn, I soon found several scholarship opportunities on my doorstep.

So, how is it possible, with all of this success – both for the band and as an individual – that I would rethink his effectiveness as a teacher?  How could my wife even think that and why would I repeat it?

Because learning is more than an output.

News footage of Jeff's marching band when we won the State title.  That's actually Jeff in the shot!

News footage of Jeff’s marching band when we won the State title. That’s actually Jeff in the shot!

Yes, we won competitions…a LOT of them.  We took 4th, 3rd, and 1st (my senior year) in the State Marching Band championships.  We took a gold medal at a national band competition in Washington DC – an honor never before given to a high school band.  We took home jazz festival trophies and we were paid to play at major openings for the art scene in Denver.  But the behind-the-scenes work did not reflect “best” teaching and learning.  It was more like a Soap Opera mixed with boot camp, while adding a pinch of schizophrenia.

See, my teacher could be witty….charming even.  He was well spoken and again, he understood music like no person I have met before or since.  He could direct, write, and arrange with the best of them.  He knew what sounded best and he demanded we all learn how to play in ways that accomplished that.

But how he got those results is exactly why the moniker of ‘best teacher’ is suspect.  While there was occasion for laughter and joking, with my teacher getting great things from myself and the entire band through praise, there were more times of brooding, anger, and screaming to force or belittle into submission.  I still remember the day on the marching field when my teacher made my section leader (a senior) cry.  He screamed and spat in my friends face for ten minutes because the trumpet section couldn’t seem to get a move right.  I remember a time he told an entire horn section to leave rehearsal.  Since they couldn’t be prepared for the practice (which was shown by their inability to get a passage of music right), they needed to get out.  He threw things.  He yelled…a lot.

In other words, as often as I pushed myself to excel and received praise for it, I also pushed myself just as often so as not to be belittled or embarrassed.  (Although those things happened, I assure you.)   Which lead to my wife’s point and my question.

Did my music teacher motivate me (us) through every means possible or did he take advantage of students who were already naturally motivated?  I think of famous actors and musicians who had abusive parents.  I think most of us agree that the ends do not justify the means in those contexts.  So what about in education?

I don’t know much about my band instructor’s life after I left school.  I know some as my little sister went through the program.  I read the newspaper reports that were sent around Facebook by past band members when he was arrested.  I saw the announcement of his marriage to a former classmate of mine.  But I don’t really know him….the man.  Some of my school mates wondered if there was a psychological issue at play.  (Schizophrenic is a remarkably apt description of those four years.)  Was he simply facilitating experiences that had been modeled for him?  Was the good cop / bad cop routine the only way to really get us motivated so as to succeed to such a high level?

Obviously I can’t say with certainty that another method would have achieved the same results, but I believe it would have.  However, I do know that I hope my daughter never experiences anything like it.  I do know that this kind of architected education experience flies in the face of what I have studied, researched, and experienced about teaching and learning in my lifetime.

So, it’s interesting to me that until my wife said something, I had never really thought through it.  I have talked with educators, K-20, in over 30 countries about transforming education through effective practices in neuroscience, learning research, and education technology.  I speak to cognition, catalysts, and the incredibly important concept of conation (more on this in my next blog).  But I had never divorced the actions of preparation from the outcomes of performance in regard to my own history.  I mistook my University scholarship, my awards, and my accolades as “evidence” of learning.  But I now realize that learning happened despite this teacher.  I can appreciate his talent and his drive, but I think it’s time to reconsider my “top three” teachers…

Good luck and good teaching my friends.

Dr. Jeff D  Borden
Chief Innovation Officer

About Jeff Borden

My title at work is ‘Chief Innovation Officer.’ So I'm trying to transform teaching and learning at scale. How do I do that? Through my "life" jobs. Primarily, I'm a dad and husband. But I'm also a professor, writer, professional speaker, comedian, researcher, lifelong learner, musician, dog-owner, and even a ranked disc golfer... I've spoken to, trained, or consulted with hundreds of thousands of educators at all levels, in numerous countries, K-20, about how to teach and learn effectively in the 21st Century.

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