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What is great teaching, and great teachers?

As a young student, then a young pianist, then a teacher, I always wondered what were the main dos and don’t about teaching: in other words what makes one a great teacher?

In this blog, I will share my memories, experiences, thoughts and revelations about what I believe defines a great teacher.

First off, I realized that teaching is very tricky. It requires lots and lots of knowledge, actually one teacher never knows enough or knows it all. I also came to realize that one of the most tragic mistake people often do is to think that because one knows a lot more on a specific topic (let’s say music) than the average Joe, then that’s it, one can start teaching. Nothing could be more false. Even getting a degree in a field doesn’t make you a teacher in that field. It makes you more knowledgeable than someone not having a degree in that field, that’s for sure. But teaching is truly an art. One of the first rules of teaching should definitely be to make sure that students leave with a lot more questions at the end of the lesson than when they came in with, and also, students should leave with sufficient clear assignments that can be reasonably fulfilled until the next lesson/class. Doing will certainly help the students. I remember that I had the unfortunate experiences to leave classes and masterclasses and having no clue of what was the point of my class (or anyone else classes for that matter). I had no clue of what I was to specifically work on for the following classes, everything was a blur and truly unsatisfying (and frustrating too to be honest). My only question was: what am I supposed to do now with that class? I have learned close to nothing and I have no clue of what I am supposed to do. If you, students, find yourself in that position, then please do like me, change teacher, class, or both (if you can).Interestingly too, these (no fun) experiences did not occur only in music, they can also occur anytime with anyone! Although this is not the topic of this blog, you may find that those rules can be applied to your friends and friendship in general.

One other tricky aspect of teaching that I had to experience too, is that teaching requires different approaches with every student. Teacher needs to adapt to that constantly, and to make it even more complicated, not every teacher is for every student, and vice versa! Great teachers will recognize that they can not teach everyone. We can all agree that teaching requires challenging the students. Giving the students enough material to work with and creating enough "food for thought" for the next lesson the following week. Making students "feel good" by telling them non-stop how "perfect" they play (we covered the “perfection subject on my previous blog) or how the students have mastered this or that should not be the focus nor an interesting part of the lesson. Yes, students must be complimented for their improvement(s), but using the word perfection as a way of describing improvement(s)? I do not believe this is healthy for the students. I believe helping the students to understand that once they mastered what they were asked there is more to come, and more to come etc.. I think that approach is a lot closer to reality and a lot more helpful to the students

Another part of teaching which can be very tricky too is the delivery. Students must be involved in the teacher’s lecture, they must be asked questions and feel that they are “part of the experience”. A class or a lesson is not TV. The students shouldn’t feel that the class will run the same way that they are present or not. Interaction in a class and dialogue is a much more productive way to teach/learn than sitting on the back of your chair and wait for knowledge to drip in. I always make a point to keep the student focused, alert and involved at all time when I teach them. I ask them questions non-stop as I know that if I feed them answers by the end of the class they might remember 10% of it, by the next day 5% and the next week 1% at best. That poor return can easily be called a waste of resources. Instead I make them search for their own answer, that I monitor and guide them to make sure they don’t waste too much time finding the answer either. I use one of my quotes: “If you give students the answer they might remember it for a week or two, If you make them find the answer they will remember it for life”. Why? Because they went through a process to find that answer. They had to think for themselves and go through hoops That is the process they will remember which will (later in life when the same question arise) make them remember the correct answer. One of my favorite saying (I created too) is: “Students will remember for life what they strive to learn”. Another way to prove my point is to use the famous “learning curve”. If one feeds students the answer, they actually have not learned anything at all (admitting you had their full attention then), they have listened (at best) but they have not learned. So there was no process in how they learned it, and therefore the learning curve was actually never started or triggered.

So what is great teaching, great teachers?

I do not believe I have all the answers by any means, but to my understanding, a great teacher is someone who knows their limits, involves you in their world of knowledge of that specific topic you came for, makes you think for yourself to find answers, doesn’t spend their time “making you feel good” (although they may give you compliments), and last but not least, gives you enough “food for thought” for you to be eager to go back to the next class to ask more questions about your findings and that the teacher gave you enough homework until the next class, that you will not be overwhelmed but not under worked either.

I always welcome comments and questions. I will be delighted to answer all of them.

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