The Language of Teaching

This is a guest post by Dr. Andrea McAlister. After attending the 2017 MTNA Conference in Baltimore, I wanted to bring you the session that impacted me most. Leading up to the conference, I had been noticing myself using the word “good” a lot and without thought (even though I knew better) so this was exactly what I needed. Andrea was a fantastic presenter. Despite being a 20-minute accelerated track session, she epitomized the saying that “less is more.” She got to the point, was clear, and very engaging. I hope you glean as much as I did from her regarding our use of language and words.

I recently had the opportunity to present Better Than “Good” at the 2017 MTNA National Conference and, while I’ve given numerous presentations throughout the years, I found this one to be strangely difficult to assemble. According to my abstract, I was to talk about praise, feedback, and the different ways in which we can effectively communicate with our students. It’s what I do every year in my pedagogy classes with the next generation of teachers. We discuss a variety of ways to put gestures, musical concepts, and technical skills into verbal cues for a variety of ages and levels. While it’s difficult enough for new teachers to put ideas into words, many of my students speak English as a second language, making the process that much more difficult and important. As they grow in education and experience, these new teachers fill their toolboxes with expressions they know will work with their students and pick up a new tip or two along the way.

I do this year after year with a new crew of pedagogy students, so why did it seem so difficult to prepare the same material for the conference? Why not take the same tried-and-true class activities, slap them on a power point slide, and be done with it? “Teaching is not telling,” says Frances Clark and yet here I was, telling teachers how to use words. Something didn’t feel right.


Defining our Words

Words matter and we teachers are clearly aware of this fact. Our entire profession revolves around our ability to use words. We put a lot of thought into how we use praise and feedback in a lesson; how we describe attributes of sound, technique, and musicality using imagery, analogy, and color. But how often do we actually define those very words? Knowing their definition can drastically change how, when, and how often we use them, especially one word in particular: good.

I would like to say that it is just my pedagogy students who overuse the word “good” but we see it everywhere. It has become our filler word not unlike the sound “um”: the sound we use primarily when we’re not sure what to say. The Urban Dictionary defines “um” as no, yes, no way, totally, or whatever. That covers a lot of ground! I feel this is what “good” has become.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “good” as a favorable word but I have found that its use really depends on the circumstances and the vocal inflection. Are we saying “Good!” like we really mean it? Do we say “Good, but…” and immediately launch into criticism? Or are we showing indecision or sarcasm with a rising infection –  “Good?” If we follow the word with specific information such as “good evenness of your alberti bass” and then go a step further and say “you must have worked hard this week,” we not only offer our praise, we also commend the effort put forth in the student’s practice. We hand the ownership of learning over to the student.


Defining our Language

As we define the words that bring success to our teaching, we often look to the ones we use and think about most often – praise and feedback. But these aren’t the only words spoken in a lesson. After much wrestling with my presentation, I finally realized my stumbling block: my goal as a pedagogue is more than just communicating and defining words like “good”. It’s about defining and developing a broader language of teaching – a language that guides our behaviors and attitudes. I didn’t want my presentation to be exclusively about the words we use, I wanted to delve into the language that defines us.

language: words, their pronunciations, and the methods of combining them used and understood by a community

Teaching pedagogy means that while we are talking about teaching, my students are really, in fact, observing me teach. They are listening to the very pedagogical values I hope to instill in them. I need to be clear in my language and my expectations in order to help my students develop their own. This goes far beyond the syllabus I spend so much time crafting. The details in this document – including how to give praise, feedback, and communication – must be covered during the semester but they can’t describe the kind of teacher I hope my students become.


Defining our Craft

In order to understand who we are as teachers, we need to begin with the language we use to define ourselves. When we think about what we do as educators, we probably think about instructing, guiding, and demonstrating. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary, however, defines “to teach” this way:

teach: to cause to know something; to accustom to some action or attitude

How might this change the way we approach our students? To what do we want them to grow accustomed? Margaret Mead said, “Children must be taught how to think, not what to think.” How often do we do the thinking for our students? Probably more often than is necessary and for a number of legitimate reasons: we know more about musical analysis than our students, we have a better grasp of appropriate interpretations, and, since we were taught by teachers who gave us all the information, that is also how we teach.

We obviously can’t allow our students total autonomy in the lesson. Information first needs to be presented in a sequential yet imaginative way before students can begin to make musical decisions. As a teacher gives praise and feedback in the lessons, the student becomes aware of the rights and wrongs of musical technique and interpretation and is, hopefully, internalizing this information. If we trust that we are giving them a solid musical foundation, there comes a time when we need to let go and find out. We need to ask questions that require more than yes/no answers. We need to listen carefully to the answers they give us. We need to be vulnerable enough to know that we don’t have to know it all and that exploring with our students is often a better learning experience than providing them with information. If a student is accustomed to being asked questions and not rely on the teacher for every answer, they also become accustomed to thinking for themselves. Not only does this define who we are as teachers, it changes how we see the students who occupy our piano benches each week.


Defining our Students

Our students aren’t just our students – they come to feel like our family. We invest a lot of time, love, and energy in each other. We make music together in the lesson, they devote time to practice at home, and they perform in festivals and competitions several times a year. Some practice far more in a week than I do! We want the best for them yet this is the definition of a student: one who studies a subject. I don’t think this is truly how we wish to define their experience.

What if, instead of defining them as students, we define them as musicians?

musician: a composer, conductor, or performer of music

The word “musician” is a very loaded word. In some circles, it’s an elite word reserved for the most elite performers. According to the definition, however, we can and should be using it to define our students. It is my belief that seeing a musician sitting at our piano gives us an entirely new language with which to speak. We have different expectations of and for them. We see them as our apprentices who will carry on the traditions, culture, and joy of music long after we’ve stopped teaching and performing. They are the future of music and speaking to them as musicians ensures a generation of artists, consumers, and concert-goers who are passionate and excited about that future.


The Language We Speak

The language we use with our students isn’t necessarily a language we say out loud but it is one that speaks loud and clear to our students. Each and every time we are present with our students, we convey who we are as teachers and who we hope they become as musicians. And this is the language I wanted to speak at the MTNA Conference. Not the words I use but the values I hold as a teacher and the values I hope I instill in my pedagogy students. I can only hope that the language of this presentation inspired teachers to explore their own language and philosophies of teaching. And I definitely hope I inspired a language that is better than “good.”


Dr. Andrea McAlister is Associate Professor of Piano Pedagogy at Oberlin College. She has recently presented at the MTNA Conference and the International Society for Music Education World Conference. Dr. McAlister serves on the Executive Committee of the Group Piano and Piano Pedagogy Conference and is Immediate Past President of the Ohio Music Teachers Association. 


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