Change for the better doesn’t always, or often, arise when things are going well.
I want to share an experience I had in the classroom a few semesters ago in the hopes that it might resonate with some of the other teachers out there. As usual, this is a story of my own failings as a teacher. I don’t mean for this to sound overly self-deprecating: thankfully, this is a story of how I was able to discover the joy of teaching after making some major changes to the way I view my role in the classroom.
In short, it was my worst class ever. It was a spring semester, freshman level Music Appreciation class—one of those general education arts classes that every college student has to take. There were 30 students, and 15 of them had the same major. Of course, the students all knew each other, so they had created a classroom dynamic all on their own. By about a month into the class, I knew I had completely lost control of the classroom environment. I was unable to talk without someone else talking, unable to bring the attention of the class to the front of the room. It soon became clear to me that it was no longer my class.
One day, I finally decided that I was going to fix everything. It was time for me to take charge, and “show those kids who’s boss.” I went in ready to “tell them what’s what.” You can probably imagine how that went. I let them know how disappointed I was, how angry I was at their immaturity, and how unfortunate it was that their behavior was making this class difficult for the “good” students.
They fought back.
I was expecting there to be some amazing turnaround and for this unruly class to magically morph into a quiet, well-behaved group of good listeners. Instead, they argued (out loud!) with my assessment of their behavior and attitudes. I let the class go early. They left angry. It was the worst teaching day of my 15-year college teaching career. I spent the remaining 20 minutes of the class sitting in the back in one of the student’s seats, alone in the room, staring at the wall, trying to figure out what had happened and where I had gone wrong.
When I was finally able to get up, I left campus and went to my favorite place in town—the local Barnes and Noble—where I walked to the Education section, found several titles on teaching strategies, and proceeded to spill coffee all over a book called “How to Teach Like a Pirate” by Dave Burgess. I broke it, I bought it, I went home and read the whole thing…and it was great! It was filled with ingenious ideas for classroom management and for making a class interesting for students—the latter concept which I had somehow completely disregarded in my career. I discovered that there were all sorts of ways to create a classroom environment that is simultaneously engaging for students and, because of that, can help college educators (no education degree required!?) to avoid all sorts of pitfalls that arise in the classroom setting.
That weekend, I completely rewrote my class. Instead of lecturing the material and expecting all of the students to memorize and regurgitate the same arbitrary facts, I developed in-class activities that would help the students explore important topics in music. I discovered ways to build rapport with my students so that they would feel comfortable being in the class and accepting of what was being offered. I looked at my teaching philosophy and course goals (you know, those things the university requires you to put on your syllabus) and realized that these could actually help me to shape my class and decide what is necessary and what could be left out. I discovered that my philosophy for this class was this: I wanted the students to like music as much or more when they would leave the class as when they came in. Anything else, any other content, became of secondary importance.
I was able to turn things around. At the end of the first day back after that weekend, after engaging the class in a fun (but educationally relevant) activity, I told the students that I was fully committed for the rest of the semester to making sure that their class was going to be the kind of class they would want to come to every day. After a brief silence, something happened that has never happened to me before in a class, and probably never will happen again. They clapped.
While the rest of the semester wasn’t perfect—I mean, I was trying out what was for me a completely new approach to teaching—I was able to build a friendly classroom environment in which both the students and I felt comfortable, and in which learning could truly take place. And now, a few semesters later, when I see those students on campus, they say “hello.” As a bonus, perhaps related and perhaps not, I was soon after honored with my university’s Distinguished Professor of the Year award; during the awards ceremony, I couldn’t help but think about how, not long before, I was sitting in the back of that classroom, trying to figure out how to turn my class around.
*note: Over the next few months, I plan to share on this blog some of the activities that I now use in my Music Appreciation class. Feel free to try these out! I hope they work for you as well as they have for me! Please tell me what you think, and let me know you if have any suggestions for trying these in other ways, or suggestions for other types of in-class work that are both engaging and educational. Also, if you have had a situation in the classroom that led you to rethink the way you teach, please let me know!