Rebecca Koerselman is away. Today The Twelve welcomes Randolph Johnson.
As teachers, we can sometimes become preoccupied with our own shortcomings and lose sight of our calling to learn continually and teach gracefully. Even if our own scholarship is firing on all cylinders, and we are quite confident in ourselves, we may still have some underlying frustrations in our teaching and our students’ progress: “not good enough; not fast enough; not thorough enough….” So it’s understandable to have thoughts of despair about halfway through the semester and feel like chucking out the syllabus—(so meticulously crafted over the summer!)—to start over from scratch. Have you been there? I have. All teachers have been or will at some point be overcome by shortcomings and the loss of hope: this is what I call “waste.” I’ve never had the time to entirely redo my syllabus in the middle of the semester, so I have pressed on. Now…how to pick up one’s heart and teach with hope again?
It requires more effort and seeming “waste” at first, but simply moving forward sets us on the path to hope. For example, I frequently teach two different sections of a single musicianship class in a given semester. Students in each section have different backgrounds, skills, and responses to the course content. I can’t force one course lesson plan upon the two different sections. I need to take the time to annotate my lesson plans with class-specific instructions that can help me make small adjustments to the plan for each section. The title of Barbara Skalinder’s 2016 book is a forceful reminder to teach with patience and attention to detail—The Music of Teaching: Learning to Trust Students’ Natural Development. The text chronicles her longstanding piano studio and the changing attributes of each generation of students who have studied under her. Skalinder’s commitment to excellence and patience and her ability to mold musicians out of students from diverse backgrounds is an encouragement to anyone who feels like the “up-and-coming” generation is beyond hope.
One of my favorite hymns, “Pensive, Doubting, Fearful Heart” by John Newton (1779), reminds me that teachers need to hear words of restoration and hope from God:
1 Pensive, doubting, fearful heart,
Hear what Christ the Savior says;
Every word should joy impart—
Change thy mourning into praise.
8 All thy wastes I will repair;
Thou shalt be rebuilt anew;
And in thee it shall appear
What the God of love can do.
As we are rebuilt anew by Christ, we are equipped by Him to speak words of hope to our students, fulling the promise that God’s grace will multiply: “And of his fulness have all we received, and grace for grace,” (John 1:16). As our students are built up in hope, we can have ongoing conversations with them to share how we deal with life’s struggles. Then, in order that hope should multiply, our fellowship with students can transform them into what David Smith and Susan Felch call “markers of hope,” (Teaching and Christian Imagination, 2016, p. 49). Using a nautical analogy, Smith and Felch make reference to the storms that God sometimes puts in people’s lives to redirect their life paths. As our students grow into “markers” or beacons of light, they further multiply hope as they encourage each other through times of distress. Presumably, each person involved in this chain of relationships (teacher, student, peer) could personally commune with Christ and receive hope first hand. However, Christ has established the Church so that we would have a community of hopeful beacons all around us. Seemingly wasteful? Perhaps a few would say so in times of peace, but most all would agree that in times of struggle we need a redundancy of hope to surround us continually.
As a teacher, I need to be a light to my students at all times, not just when they are struggling. Although it seems wasteful for me to heap my hope upon their hope, this repetition pleases God. These personal interactions with my students also remind me to incorporate rhythms of repetition in my teaching. Do you find this as difficult as I do? It is easy to become frustrated by the need for frequent repetition: “My students just don’t understand this! Here we are going over the concept for the tenth time….” Repetition can seem like a waste, but any musician should quickly recall that repetition is the foundation for musical beauty. “No repetition” equals “no coherence.” Repetition is also a necessity in teaching if we define teaching as resulting in true learning that gives our students the ability to understand, retain, apply, and innovate. Music study points us to God and reminds us to pray for the Holy Spirit to anoint our teaching with the repetitive (but never dull) rhythms, melodies, and harmonies of that most blessed song that is always being sung at God’s throne:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory,” (Isaiah 6:3b).
Randolph Johnson is an assistant professor of music theory at Oklahoma Baptist University in Shawnee, OK