The Student View of Teaching, or What Students Expect of Teachers in the 1970s

October 1, 1973

Teaching is always a focal point of interest in Symposium. For Volume 13, six essays were commissioned from students by selected professors to provide a forum for those who are still on the receiving end of teaching. At the time of this writing, Ms. Rohrer was an undergraduate.

The other students were:
Kathleen Brown, undergraduate, University of Colorado
Ramona Hadgis Matthews, graduate student, University of Maryland
Rosalie Schellhous, graduate student, University of California, Santa Barbara
Anne Trenkamp, graduate student, Case Western Reserve University
Loretta J. Wood, graduate student, Indiana University

Their essays were also included in Symposium Volume 13.


Let me begin by explaining my particular situation. I am one of six music majors at Emory College, a liberal arts institution which contains a very small music department whose faculty consists of one conductor, one musicologist, one theory/composition man, and a part-time lecturer in music education. The department offers a Bachelor of Arts degree with a major in music history and theory as well as the opportunity for private performance study with any of some twenty-five teaching affiliates. Seven major performance groups, in which over three hundred members of the Emory community participate, are directly sponsored by the music department; these groups, as well as guest artists, individual faculty members, and students produce over fifty concerts each season.

The dedicated core of the Emory music machine is housed in a World War II temporary barrack containing one classroom, four offices, three practice rooms, a cubicle-of-a-music-lab, and three and a half pianos. Concerts are given in a church down the street. In this situation, the most basic quality necessary to the mental and physical survival of a faculty member is the ability to persevere in the face of appalling conditions. A cheerful disposition is a considerable help to a teacher holding orchestration class at a room temperature of 50° F because the heat doesn't happen to work in November. A diplomatic nature is useful in calming the irate piano student who has finally had it with the departmental quasi-pianos and the wailing honors major who must ride the bus eight miles to find a book that should be in the library.

Beyond these requirements of extra dedication necessitated by an almost total dearth of facilities, there remain the qualities that make any teacher at any school an effective and respected educator: general competence in his or her field, accomplishments in special areas, the ability to bring out the talents of the individual student, a dedication to teaching as a way of life rather than merely a profession, and a desire to relate to students on a personal as well as academic level.

A basic level of academic competence in the field of music is necessary to any music teacher who thinks he has something to offer his students. Students are by no means overdemanding in this respect; they never expect one teacher to command a complete knowledge of the field, but they do at least hope the teacher will know where to refer them for deeper investigation. A general competence includes the willingness to admit that one doesn't know the answer when that is the case. Respect for a teacher drops abysmally when a student realizes that he is being fed faulty information to cover up a shaky background. Under ideal conditions a teacher should constantly try to improve his grasp of his subject matter by staying abreast of current research and criticism. How my heart sinks to see an aging professor pull out a few yellowed sheets of notes that provided the same lecture to another undergraduate class ten years ago!

A teacher can make a certain amount of academic hay with his students by means of his own accomplishments in the field of his specialty. I found it a genuine thrill to be taught theory by a man whose compositions I had heard and admired (even if only in the church down the street). Hearing my piano teacher relate his experiences with a certain piece in Town Hall never fails to produce a shiver of excitement. To see a professor's work in a national music journal commands no little respect—unless, of course, every time you want to see the man to discuss something he's too busy publishing for fear of perishing.

This concern brings up the fact that good scholars are one thing and good teachers quite another. The great teacher is both—a combination of academic excellence and technical finesse in the art of teaching. Whether the latter quality comes from some inborn ability or from years of experience is something that I don't know. A great teacher told me once that all a teacher needs to inspire his students is absorbing curiosity and complete enthusiasm for his subject; I believe this may be true.

A teacher must work to recognize the different abilities, needs, and goals of each individual student. As a senior music major with an extensive background, I do not expect my papers in an undergraduate class to be on the same level as those written by someone for whom the class is a first formal contact with the study of music. I expect the teacher to recognize this difference, and to guide both of us toward goals that are challenging but reasonable in the light of our experience and ability. This ability to challenge a student in an intelligent manner is a tremendous asset to both classroom and studio teachers. My piano teacher rose impressively in my estimation when he successfully guided me through the study of a difficult piece that initially, through sheer cowardice, I had no intention of attempting.

A true dedication to teaching as a total concept of living must include a feeling of primary responsibility to the welfare and development of the student. The average undergraduate, starved for a little approval or at least concern from his academic elders, will literally do almost anything for a teacher who cares deeply about him. A teacher who can relate to his students both as scholars and as fellow human beings cannot fail to reap a tremendous response. This sort of ability does not carry with it the prerequisite of an unusually charismatic personality, for the crustiest or shyest or sleepiest lecturer can be transformed by a single spark of human concern into the type of teacher students will admire and work for.

My personal heroes and heroines of the teaching profession are those who have enough confidence in my potential to challenge me, whose personal accomplishments create in me a desire to emulate them, who always take the time to stop in the stairwell between classes and talk about nothing in particular. A teacher who can serve his students as both an example of academic excellence and a concerned counselor, who can balance the dual roles of scholar and teacher with ease, and who can successfully communicate his enthusiasm for his subject and the sheer joy of learning, will be embraced by his students not only as an excellent teacher but also as a great human being.

1958 Last modified on April 17, 2018