Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

Professional Development is Where You Find It

The teaching profession requires its participants to do many things. Obviously, teaching children is foremost, but there are responsibilities not always mentioned in a job listing.

Once I heard an anecdote that claimed that the most-regulated professionals, the people who are most required to update and refine their professional knowledge and techniques (Professional Development) – other than medical doctors – are us teacher types. (Aside: I can’t believe that first responders aren’t somewhere in the top two.  I gotta look that up again sometime.) Teachers keep up with the latest developments. We avail ourselves of workshops having to do with pedagogy, classroom management, new technology, all kinds of things. Music teachers are often persuaded to attend workshops and lectures about arts advocacy – i.e. here are all these great reasons why you should please not cut my program or my job. (I suspect math teachers have to deal with this somewhat less often, no offense meant to math teachers.)

So, late last week, I made my annual pilgrimage to my state music ed association’s all-state conference, with the intention of getting more professionally developed. On Thursday, Friday and Saturday, I attended five, six, and three workshops respectively. They addressed topics like “Social Media in the Music Classroom” and “The Jazz Guitar is a Four-Stringed Instrument” (i.e. get your young guitarists off the lowest two strings: this is jazz, not heavy metal) and “Getting Started with Digital Audio” and “Vocal Health for Music Educators” and “Teaching Beginning Percussion”. Fun stuff; informative sessions for the most part; and presented by people who knew their stuff.

Knowing your stuff and being able to communicate your stuff, however, are two separate things. We’ve all had teachers (elementary-school through graduate school) who could make an hour-long class seem like ten minutes … and we’ve all had teachers who could make an hour-long class seem like the Rest Of Your Natural Life. The latter was not in great evidence this week at All-State, but every so often I bumped into a session presenter who didn’t have everything they needed to make their session “come alive”.

(“Come alive” is an overused and under-defined phrase. But I can pretty swiftly identify a session that is being made to “come dead”.)

Before I get too down-in-the-mouth about this, I ought to note that there were plenty of presenters who hit it out of the park. Using the right combination of knowledge, organization, sense of humor, and empathy for / understanding of their audience, many presenters made me wish their session had been allowed to go on for awhile longer.

But as much as I strive to find helpful bits of information or creative ideas to bring back to my classroom or rehearsal room, I equally take note of the presenting style — effective or not.  I suspect that one or more of a number of factors may be on display in the case of ineffective.

 

Among them, first: Sudden Self-Doubt.

A number of eons ago, as a graduate student at All-State, I attended a lecture session which was being presented by a veteran music teacher whose name I recognized, even though I was merely a graduate student and new to the state association. It was one of those names that members of the music ed profession in my state absolutely were familiar with: experienced teacher, head of a successful school music program for many years, active clinician and performer, well-thought-of … and within the first minute of the session, I thought to myself, “he’s nervous.” Which was a really unexpected thought, at least to me, in the context of how big a name he was. For the balance of the session, his delivery was fraught with stammers, and with incomplete sentences, and with me wishing his voice projected better; and the whole experience was surreal and disconcerting. Why was this particular gentleman nervous?

It took me a while to figure out that sometimes the teachers who can knock you out if they’re working with a group of public school students can be anywhere between jittery and terrified if they’re running a clinic for other teachers. Peer leadership is really hard, it’s been said … but I’ve mostly heard that phrase uttered in the context of young people leading other young people. That session made clear to me that the challenge of peer leadership extends to adults leading adults, too. I can imagine the subconscious thought process: am I really the expert in the room? Could there be people in here who know this subject as well or better than I do? And it’s possible they’re looking at me with raised eyebrows right now, mentally muttering, “yeah, I could do this better than you.”

Yeah, that might be daunting. And now, as then, I felt kinda badly for the man. Heck, I started my time as a church choir director in my mid-thirties, hoping to lead choristers who were ten years, twenty years, thirty years older than I. “He’s half my age,” I imagined them saying. “I should listen to him why, exactly?”

 

Next: Technical difficulties.

At one of this year’s All-State sessions, the technology failed. The wireless connection between the computer’s Powerpoint presentation and the overhead projector worked for a time and then quit. The session was about cool new technology that can be applied to music classes. At a recent faculty meeting at the school where I teach, the school’s Internet connection just never kicked in – either the server was down, or some darn thing. The whole meeting had been reserved for a guest presenter whose talk was about, you guessed it, Internet-based curriculum aids.

This stuff happens. But what was it that was drummed into my head by my teaching methods professors, by my sister who is an experienced teacher herself, by my colleagues who have taught for a long time and know the drill? – Be Prepared. Be ready with extra activities and be ready to change strategies at the drop of a hat. In last week’s technology session, while the room awaited the arrival of the conference center’s media crew with a new projector, the presenter hoped aloud that the crew would arrive soon (and we smiled patiently) … and at that faculty meeting, the presenter sweated and we felt badly for him (even to the point that a couple of us called out things like, “hang in there,” and “we feel your pain!” Very charitable; it wasn’t his idea to crash the online connection!). But in both cases, not as much material was presented as could have been. I was desperately hoping that either presenter would look out at his audience, clap his hands together, and in the style of a Vegas standup comic, smile and purr, “So! How many of you are from out of town?” And then shift into a discussion with his audience: “Really though. While we’re waiting for the Four Horsemen, let me take a poll here: how many people here have actually tried some of the apps we’ve talked about so far?” Or something! Engage your audience and get them to help you not sweat so much! Alas, no such luck.

(The conference center AV guy did arrive in time to get the rest of the session in, and the clinic was worthwhile. But that was a long ten minutes – a full one-sixth of the allotted time.)

 

Next: Words Fail Me … -or- … Show, Don’t Tell.

By this I mean, I’ve been to sessions presented by musical conductors that were anywhere from somewhat tolerable to borderline incoherent when they were using the English language … but who were ten times as eloquent when they were on a podium communicating with an ensemble using nothing but body language, gestures and a conducting baton. I’ve also been to sessions presented by – forgive me – people who were ten times as comfortable interfacing with a computer as they were speaking to live humans. And how often have you seen an interview with a justly-famous artist in which they couldn’t explain what it was they were doing because they were so mired in jargon or terminology that only another justly-famous musician would have a hope of understanding? Whether it was a jazz musician or a ballet dancer or a sculptor or (gasp) someone Inside The Actors’ Studio … you knew there was brilliance in there … but it just wasn’t gettin’ out.

 

Finally, and most excruciating: Lack Of Awareness.

I’m going to try to be humane about this. I just read an online review of, well, never mind what the writer was reviewing, it doesn’t matter, except that whatever good points the writer made were entirely overshadowed by his/her arrogant and clearly inflated sense of his/her own self-importance. It wasn’t pretty, and I don’t want to be that guy. Girl. (Whatever he/she was. The username was unrevealing…)

But I attended a session one afternoon last week during which, about thirty seconds in, I thought, “nothing good is going to come of this.”

The session’s title had been attractive. Could be lots of interesting discussions going on in this one. I might walk out of this one with lots to think about; with lots of ideas, possibly, to apply to my classroom – and that’s certainly the point of the conference, so – perfect! The presenter was a college music education professor, and while I’ve certainly experienced my share of college professors in the field of education that betrayed scant evidence of having been in an actual classroom for quite some time, I tend to give genuine collegiate-level instructors the early benefit of the doubt. And this one was probably a fine person.

Ah, well.

Half of my frustration (aside from being unable to sneak out and go to a session nearby that I thought was just as attractive) came from the fact that the material presented in the session didn’t come anywhere close to my great expectations of borderline-controversial issues being debated back and forth. I walked out at the end muttering to myself, “we could have summarized the last hour’s exposition in ten minutes and then spent the next 50 minutes digging into how we can do this, why we need to do it, what’s the best way to do it, step out of our traditional-music-ed stuck-in-the-mud-ness, figure out how to blaze some trails!!”

The other half of my frustration sprung from the presenter’s style. Slow. Pedantic. Seemingly convinced that people were hanging on his every word out of sheer suspense (when in fact we were hanging on to see if he would get to the end of a sentence some time soon). And … with apologies, but there’s no other word for it … it was just lame. By the time the session was five minutes old, I was keeping myself entertained by observing the rest of the audience. Audience members were trying. They really were. “Well, we’re here,” their body language seemed to say; “might as well make the best of it; take notes; be a polite audience and look attentive,” … but it was (to my eye, anyway) a struggle and a half.

A couple of Starred Thoughts® struck me as quite applicable in that moment. “Look around occasionally to make sure they’re following you.” “The first job of a teacher is to get a response.” And the killer: “The instant you stop entertaining, your audience starts evaluating.” I can’t speak for anyone else in that room, but I was evaluating that presenter immediately.

 

Again, let me be clear: to be fair, next I should post thrilling accounts of the truly great presentations I witnessed last week, as well as the truly memorable and effective teachers I’ve studied with. And I’m going to do that. I promise.

But those Starred Thoughts® of my college band director were really echoing loudly in my head. I freely admit, I’ve been spoiled. I’ve been around great teachers. Example: for the last thirteen summers, when I’ve assisted with the instruction of the Drum Major Academy clinics at West Chester University and UMass-Amherst, I’ve been surrounded by some truly great teachers, whose techniques I have been inspired to aspire to. One day, maybe, perhaps, I’ll be that good a teacher – that good a presenter – that good a communicator. And it’s going to take work. And if I get even half as good as some of these people I’ll be thrilled. And I don’t just mean the George Parks-, Heidi Sarver-, Tim Lautzenheiser-, Jamie Weaver-caliber people (and with a set of role models like that, I have been truly spoiled!) – but teachers and band directors from across the country whose names are not universally known but ought to be. They engage and inspire their students right from the get-go, from word number one. They remind me not just how to teach better, but why I teach in the first place.

So, for better or worse, and at least by way of comparison to Great Moments In Teaching that I have watched, I can spot lame a mile away. And on the occasions when I’m experiencing that sort of presentation, at least I can try to imagine what I would do differently to make it more engaging, more enjoyable, more motivating, more accessible or comfortable to my audience, better somehow.

One of those occasions that sticks with me still, and likely will never entirely leave my memory – and this is a good thing – happened a few years ago. As it was happening, I knew it was hands-down the worst professional development clinic I would ever be part of. It was a “bring-your-instrument” session with a Midwestern band conductor. I sat on a stage, on a summer afternoon, in the midst of a concert band full of music teachers (with no graceful way out) who were being led in relatively little actual playing of instruments, and suffering through spoken thoughts from a clinician that I’m pretty sure nobody else on that stage felt was offering anything useful. All I wanted was supper. And – stunningly, and with the largest pile of irony imaginable – the clinic was entitled, “What Is Done Without Joy is Zero!”

The exclamation point is not mine. It was in the clinic title. Which only made it that much less joyful, somehow.

The main thing I took away from that awful two-hour, twenty-minute Excursion Through The Gates of Professional Development Purgatory … was that I would never, ever, ever want to conduct any class or rehearsal or presentation of any kind in such a way that would cause my students or audience to think thoughts about me that I was thinking about this conductor.

 

The very most of the time, professional development opportunities give me good concrete ideas to take back to the places where I teach – public school, church gig, or wherever else. Even if I take just one new idea or thought away from a PD event, it’s been worthwhile … even in the uncomfortable moments when that thought is, “shoot me if I ever teach like that.”

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March 5, 2012 - Posted by | DMA, education, GNP, Starred Thoughts, teachers | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

2 Comments »

  1. Another one that gets me is the presenter who starts out something like this: “I know ALL about what it is like to be a teacher. The two years I spent as a teacher has really helped me for the last fifteen do these workshops.” Sorry. Anyone who taught for a mere fraction of the time that he/she has been a workshop presenter is going have to work REALLY hard to earn my respect and expectation that he/she is going to tell me something worthwhile.

    Comment by DD | March 6, 2012 | Reply

  2. I’ll have to remember this blog as I present my first “peer” workshop at the Literacy Institute this summer, titled “Johnny Wants to Read: Research and Practical Applications of Current Reading Motivation Research for the Elementary Teacher.” I’ve been reading “Presenting to Win!” which I recommend; it lines out the many, many pitfalls of presenting and gives great advice. Now – to follow that advice. Yikes!
    K

    Comment by Kristin | May 16, 2012 | Reply


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