Distinguished Teachers: Born to Be, or Seasoned Through the Years?

October 31, 1993

One of my favorite things to do is to take an hour now and then to observe the masterful teaching of one or another of my colleagues. At the close of a class or lesson, we may talk a bit about specific points that were made on cultural milieu of the targeted piece or performance quality of the selected recording, but content was not the sole purpose of my visit. Rather, my intrigue is invariably the manner in which the content was delivered, and how content is wrapped within the personal traits and presentational skills of the teacher.

No audience of students is automatically "captive," even when physically present in classes. Each student develops individual perspectives of the music featured within the course or class lecture, based at least partly on the manner in which it is packaged and presented. Surely, other variables complement the delivery: the student's long-term or temporary mood, the perceived use of the piece, and the inferential or referential meaning the student applies to the piece. Still, the teacher's style can make or break the subject matter for a sizable segment of the student audience. While students may be enrolled in our classes, are students guaranteed to be captivated by the subject matter? The extent of their captivation is often as much dependent on masterful teaching as on the subject itself.

Who are the distinguished teachers? We can quickly name those in our past, or among our present colleagues, who possess the features of great teaching. For me, it was the music historian who humanized the music by noting the composer's inspirations and influences, the social circumstances of the composition, and the audience reaction to the premiere of a piece. It was the theorist who led us in the improvisational use of a structural unit so that it would come alive within us and through our instruments. It was the studio teacher who was governed by goals we had set for the term rather than her own time schedule, and who would allot (nearly) whatever time it took to achieve them. It was the ensemble director who balanced our performance efforts with remarks about the genre, the composer, and the piece itself, so that a more complete understanding would guide a more musically intelligent performance.

Distinguished teachers are passionate and compassionate people, with an honest interest in their students and a concern that they will be able to transmit their own knowledge base to their students. Their priority within the collegiate setting is teaching, yet their creative activities as performers and scholars enhance and energize their teaching. They are highly disciplined people, as they continue to build repertoire, to pursue scholarly research, and to refine their skills through thoughtful practice. Their professional interests in performance and scholarship bleed into their teaching and are intentionally harnessed by them, for the sake of their students. They are pensive and introspective, dynamic and stimulating. They are invariably inventive and original, and responsive to the musical and academic needs of their students. They are seemingly superhuman.

Keen as I am to know just what constitutes masterful teaching, I cannot help but raise the obvious issue: Are these distinguished teachers "born-to-be," or seasoned through the years? Is it by nature or through nurture that their teaching mastery developed? With concentrated practice, can anyone be raised to the mastery level of models and mentors we have known? The music teacher in me settled long ago within the "nurture" camp, and recent research seems to underscore and reinforce the position. If the K-12 and teacher education data are transferable to the collegiate level, there is little doubt that "born-natural" teachers are rare, while many more become seasoned through time. This allows hope for those striving for mastery.

Brophy1 summarized a number of findings on approaches of the masters to teaching: (1) They work from a structured plan. (2) They are task-oriented and deliver ideas at a brisk pace. (3) They involve their students in learning (through recitation, performance, active listening and analysis). Mastery is linked to the qualities referred to as magnitude, intensity, or effect of a teacher's presentational style. Yarbrough 2 defined magnitude (for choral rehearsal settings) in terms of a teacher's frequency and/or continuous eye contact, physical proximity to students, volume and modulation of speaking voice, expressive hand gestures, facial expressions, and pacing. Standley, Cassidy, and Madsen3 added to a definition of teacher intensity the teacher's precise conducting and cuing gestures, infrequent verbal/vocal hesitation or use of filler words, short and simple instructions, limited teacher talk, good posture and changes in posture, and teacher behaviors that demonstrate concentration and confidence. Though the context of the research was specifically secondary-school ensembles, the overlap to collegiate settings is plausible.

While it is true that some teachers are "born-to-be," chances are greater that we who are motivated to teach can learn to teach well. Research findings are evidence that the global attributes of enthusiasm and an astute sense of timing that allow subject presentation to proceed smoothly can be learned by those who take the art of teaching seriously. In these investigations, not only were prospective teachers able to recognize high and low intensity in other teachers, they were able to demonstrate high intensity in their own teaching, as a result of training. If undergraduate students (with limited opportunity to practice) can develop the characteristics of mastery in teaching, we who work daily with students have the forum at our fingertips for attaining mastery in the transmission of our subject matter to students.

Are the distinguished teachers we have known "born-naturals"? Or did they struggle with their capacity to engage students through their fiery delivery and introspective wisdom? We may never know the concentrated and painstaking efforts our models and mentors may have taken to develop the qualities we revere in them. We do know this: Wherever we may naturally find ourselves on the "good teacher" continuum, we can develop the qualities of the "master teacher" over time and through practice. With a little nurturing, we may take our natural talents to the level of the masters.

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