“Whoever teaches learns in the act of teaching, and whoever learns teaches in the act of learning.”
– Paulo Freire
I had an eye-opening interaction with one of my classes this week at placement. I’m placed with a vocal music teacher, which is quite far outside of my instrumental music element. And this is a great thing! Why go to teachers’ college at all if you’re not going to go out of your comfort zone? To really further my learning, I’ve gotten in the habit of asking direct questions of my students – particularly those students with lots of vocal music experience. And I notice that most students are quite hesitant to answer something like “Is this working?” or “What can I do better here?” Now, I’m an aspiring critical pedagogue. To me, learning is impossible without vulnerability and honesty. And so I don’t even pretend to be an expert in the classroom. In any music class, instrumental or vocal, there will be many students who are simply more knowledgeable than I am. They have more talent, work harder and are more interested in performance, or theory, or ear training than I ever was. And these students, if they’re being honest, know that this is the case.
With this “radical honesty” in mind, I ask students to be forthright with me. I’m sure they appreciate the gesture, but very few are really giving me anything beyond a surface “Hey, Mr. Monis!” (which I always appreciate). So now I’m stuck wondering – how do we reach these students? The title of this post is a direct quote of a grade ten student. I was running a sort of diagnostic “intro to reading rhythm” exercise, and I asked the students if anyone wasn’t comfortable reading the rhythm I showed them. I made it clear that there was no wrong answer, and I just needed to know where we were at so I could plan lessons. The students, rightly, were skeptical of this. One student asked me, “Is this a mind game?” I decided, on a whim, that I was going to get #real with my students. I told them that I don’t care about what they’re “supposed” to know, or whether they’re meeting a curriculum expectation (at least not this early in the year). What I care about is that we are all in music, learning together, and getting to a deeper place of understand of what it means to be human.
I’ve been really struggling with this moment, because it speaks to all sorts of issues for educators. What happened to these students that they are so hesitant to be honest about Mr. Monis’s lack of knowledge of vocal music – a lack that I admit freely? Or about their own inability to read rhythm – which is plainly evident but not admitted in class. Did these students have a teacher, or loved one, who made them feel (intentionally or not) that they couldn’t be honest about what is and isn’t working (in class; at home; whatever)? I experienced this in my university music degree, when I was made to feel “less than” about my comparative inability to hear harmony and transcribe by ear. Does that lack make me a crummy musician, or less of a music educator? Perhaps. But even if it does, should I be made to feel awful for it? Or should colleagues and mentors reach out and try to help me learn these things?
I’m glad I didn’t get mad at the student who asked this question, because he was practicing a sort of radical vulnerability himself. He dared to challenge his teacher by asking “Is this a mind game?” He knew, probably from experience, that I could have made him miserable for “questioning my authority,” or some such. He asked me anyway. I never had the courage to ask a teacher something like that, and I admire him for it. He has made more of a difference in this young educator’s life than he probably knows, and for that, I am truly grateful.