Posted in Miscellaneous

Obliged to Learn

My job is not to teach.

It is to inspire learning.

And the two can be very different indeed.

-The Arbinger Institute

The book I mentioned in my last post is The Choice in Teaching and Education, published by The Arbinger Institute. It reads almost like poetry, a coherent, progressive presentation of logical ideas in very profound successive one-liners. I had to keep my highlighter in check while I read so as not to inadvertently fail to mark anything by actually marking everything. So here are a few of my favorite lines and my accompanying two cents.


“My obligation is to learn.”  

The author explains that to inspire learning in others, they must see you inspired by learning. It sounds cliché, but I honestly love learning. My mom is a vocabulary fire hydrant and frequently in our conversations I stop her to inquire about the word she just dropped. For me, learning new words is like tasting new recipes or putting new skylights into the ceiling—satisfying and refreshing. I’m trying to pick up a few new instruments this semester and it’s an adventure on the struggle bus at times, but mostly it’s exhilarating. I can do things I never could before! I know how to play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star on the violin and the bass. It’s not Mozart, but it’s more than I’ve ever been able to play on either of those instruments before.


Realizing that my love for learning is enough to sustain my potential to be a great teacher has been a very comforting epiphany for me. Of course, mastery of one’s subject is the goal, but total and complete mastery is not a prerequisite for beginning to teach. To quote The Choice again, “What I pity if what I would teach is so shallow and thin that I have been able to master the whole of it?” I like to think I have more respect for both the English language and the art of music than to think I could have either one entirely within my grasp before I graduate from life. Perhaps I’ll have a decent handle both, but with as much to discover as already has been.

“It is neither enough, nor, paradoxically, even necessary to know more than those I would teach.”

This idea takes a lot of the self-consciousness out of teaching for me. Echoing the previous thought, the idea is that we, as teachers, can and ought to be learning alongside our students. It’s ok that we aren’t omniscient. If I do know heaps more than my students, but I’ve lost my zeal for learning, then all that knowledge is about as useful to them as moldy cheese.

“Students learn best by watching others learn, not by watching others teach.”

Perhaps this is the least understood idea in all our talk about modeling and leading by example. Students will learn better watching us learn than watching us teach. Jerome Bruner, an American educational psychologist, asserted that, “any subject can be taught effectively in some intellectually honest form to any child at any stage of development.” Authentic learning will happen where there is authentic enthusiasm. With that kind of learning, the learners will be engaged and get what they need from the lesson.  

Jerome Bruner, b. 1915
Jerome Bruner, b. 1915

“The master teacher is nothing more than a master learner who has remembered the art of childhood—the art of learning in the presence of others. Or more precisely: the art of learning because of the presence of others.”

The author goes on to explain that learning happens in a conversation and since insightful conversations don’t often happen in isolation, learning is a community effort. The idea of collective, cooperative, group-centric learning is very attractive to me. I understand why competition is healthy and necessary for a vibrant society, but I prefer the win-win situations where it doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game. Call me a starry-eyed dreamer, but I like it when we all get along and make learning fun and non-threatening for each other.  

Another musing on this quote is the idea of humility.  “Every sincere question is humility expressed.” (That one is also from The Choice.) Learning with other people around requires a degree of trust and willingness to be observably imperfect. If you learn, the inherent admission is that you did not know or understand something previously. While that’s obvious, it’s still hard to come to grips with it, especially under the scrutiny of our peers, which we often perceive as judgement even when it isn’t intended as such.  


Pondering my role as a teacher primarily as that of a learner is empowering and relieving. Last semester, one of my professors wrote me an email that said in part, “You are a terrific student, Hannah. I predict that you will be a terrific teacher, too.” I keep that on a sticky note where I see it often to remind me that the first part of being a great teacher is being a great learner. Sometimes my self-doubt throws a shadow on my perception of my teacher chops, but I’m very secure in my learner status and that anchors me.

Thoughts, comments, and questions are always welcome here! After all, learning is a collaborative effort, right? Thanks for joining the conversation.

Posted in Miscellaneous

My Last First Day of School

imgresOk, so right upfront I’ll admit that I’ll probably end up doing more school in my life.  And, since I’m a teacher, I’ll have plenty more first days of school.  This semester marks my last first day as a student in my undergrad here at BYU, and possibly my last first day as a student for quite a while.  That’s too lengthy to be a catchy title though.

Walking onto campus on my last first day of school was quite the feeling.  I’m a fairly sentimental person—I was that kid who cried on her birthday because each passing year meant my childhood was fading.  Being nostalgic in the moment is kind of my thing, I guess.  But, I didn’t cry at all on my last first day.  It probably hasn’t registered yet.

So at the beginning of this end, I wanted to share some of my thoughts on getting the most out of school.  I realize we’re all teachers here, but the best teachers are the best students.  Hence, these are written as if to fellow students. Plus, these are probably just generally good things to remember.  (I hope, because this is what I remember from college.)

  1. Stay hydrated.  Didn’t see that one coming, huh?  I often have very long days on campus and I’m a happier, more self-actualizing student when I’m not parched.
  2. imagesDo fun things!  Seems obvious, but it’s important to have reasons you love coming to school.  I think I often take myself too seriously as a student—don’t get me wrong, I’m all for being studious—but learning without zeal, fun, excitement, and passion isn’t really worth it.  It took me until my senior year of high school to join the cross country team and play in the pit orchestra for the school musical.  And now in my senior year of college, I’m joining an orchestra and picking up rock climbing.  It keeps life fun and engaging,  and I don’t mind long days on campus because I love what I get to do.
  3. Pick your classes and your teachers with care.  My dad and my aunt counseled me early on in my BYU experience to make sure I took the class for the professor, even if it meant taking the class at a less personally convenient time.  Look around a bit at the beginning of the semester and don’t be afraid to switch your schedule around to get an excellent teacher.  Your schedule is not carved in stone, until after the add/drop deadline.  (After that, it gets messy, but doable if you have worthy causes.)  I think we, as students, sometimes don’t realize that we can be the architects of our educational experiences.  Yes, we have to fulfill the graduation requirements, but with a little digging you can find the more interesting path less travelled.
  4. Put a fence around your homework time.  You think I mean guard it carefully so you don’t get distracted with your social life, huh?  That’s only half of it.  Focused study time is often essential for academic success and personal learning.  But, your homework will expand to take all the time you give it.  So put a nice little fence around it to protect it and to protect your life from being overgrown with studies.images
  5. Have teachers that are “in your corner” so to speak.  Having an understanding with your professors makes life significantly easier when it comes to negotiating special circumstance type of things. What I mean: one of my choir directors, with whom I have a good rapport, is letting me take a pass on a rehearsal each week so I can be running my own children’s choir this semester.  A good relationship with your teacher will also be helpful in networking and job obtaining.

Well, that’s all for now, folks.  But don’t fret, I’m reading a book on teaching philosophy and it’s excellent, so expect some ponderings in that direction coming soon.  Happy beginnings to all!

Posted in Miscellaneous

The Goldilocks Zone

Lately I’ve been thinking about how to find the balance of material that is within the children’s grasp, but that stretches them–material that is masterable, but appropriately challenging.  

goldilocksA few of the educational terms that come readily to mind with this discussion are the “zone of proximal development” (ZPD) and “scaffolding.”  

“The zone of proximal development is the gap between what a learner has already mastered (the actual level of development) and what he or she can achieve when provided with educational support (potential development)…. In a classroom setting, the teacher is responsible for structuring interactions and developing instruction in small steps based on tasks the learner is already capable of performing independently — an instructional strategy known as scaffolding.”   -Heather Coffey (

For another good read on understanding scaffolding, check out this previous post.  

Now, this is all well and good when you’re in the classroom with your students and planning learning activities and objectives for next week after having observed how they’ve done this week.  Or if you’re an experienced teacher who knows second graders pretty well because you’ve been teaching a batch of them for years.  But that’s not always the case.

Precise estimation of a group’s ability is key, and when you haven’t met the group yet (as first year teachers haven’t) such precision in estimation seems almost unfathomably difficult.  Not to mention it’s an oxymoron…


If you underestimate their abilities, the students will be underwhelmed and bored.  They may also read your estimation as a limitation on their capacity. Their self-perception of their ability could diminish and they could stop trying.  

On the other hand, if you overestimate your students and have unreasonably high expectations, they may get disheartened and give up.  

Erring on either side could have detrimental effects on your students’ achievement.
I’m finding myself needing to gauge the choral potential of a mixed group of third through sixth graders without having met the students.  My plan as of right now is to solicit advice from my colleagues and mentors and have enough pieces in my repertoire to adjust as necessary once we get rolling.  I imagine this is a hurdle most first year teachers face, and I welcome any discussion on the matter.

Posted in Miscellaneous

The Wisdom of Age

Both my grandfathers are medical professionals.  My mom’s dad, Grandpa Gary, was a neuropathologist (now retired) who taught at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia.  My dad’s father, Grandpa Laurin, had his own dental practice for decades and now teaches pediatric dentistry at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  Their credentials speak for themselves, but suffice it say they are both highly educated.  They are also the men who raised my parents and I value their opinions.

Recently, in conversations with them, they each validated my career choice in a meaningful way.  Seeing as this is for other future teachers out there, I thought you also might appreciate how the wisdom of age condones what we do.  Disclaimer: as the music teacher on the writers’ panel, this is pretty music-centric.  

imgresGrandpa Gary is a very talented pianist.  He went halvsies with his dad to buy a piano when he was young and has been practicing ever since.  Last week, my family drove out to Virginia to celebrate his eightieth birthday with him.  One evening, while the rest of the family was lighting the bonfire, Grandpa and I found ourselves in his parlor with his nine-foot, concert grand Bechstein piano.  I knew he’d been working on a Rachmaninoff concerto, so I asked him to play it for me.  Hearing live music reminds me why I love music, and why I’ve chosen to become a music teacher.  Listening to my grandpa play was no exception.  After the piece, we talked about its beauty and complexity and he played a few of his favorite parts for me again.  Then we walked outside to join the rest of the family in the backyard.  I will always remember our conversation that evening.

“Isn’t music wonderful?” Grandpa mused.

“Yes.  It truly is,” I agreed.

“If only I’d been smart and starved and done music.”

“Really?” I knew he loved music, but I hadn’t expected that. “So, if you could go back and do it all again?”

“In a heartbeat.” He didn’t even pause.  A cousin came and diverted his attention and I was left pondering my own path.  Here I am, nearing the end of my college days and the beginning of my teaching days, and so far all the days I can see in either direction are full of music.  I had thought it was a pretty good gig and Grandpa’s affirmation sealed my opinion.  Point for the aspiring music teacher.    

On our way home from Virginia, we drove through Wisconsin. (I know, not exactly en route, but why not, right?)  We stayed with my dad’s parents.  Grandpa Laurin will tell you he doesn’t have musical talent.  He sings emphatically and on pitch during church, I know that much. And he plays CDs virtuosically.  Early in our stay this trip, I followed the sound of Italian arias into Grandpa’s study to find the empty CD case for Italian love arias atop his CD player.  A couple days later, Grandpa asked me about my classes this fall.  I told him I’d be taking music history, vocal pedagogy, pre-student teaching, singing with BYU Women’s Chorus, and starting up a children’s choir.  My music-dominant schedule inspired an impromptu reminiscence about his music teacher in school.  imgres

“She sang opera and played the piano to accompany herself during lunch.  She made us listen to arias and Negro spirituals.  I thought it was dumb.” Grandpa got a little choked up.  “I thought it was dumb, but now my favorite music is aria and Negro spirituals.  Where did I get that?  It was from her.”  My tough-as-nails grandpa who never cries got a lump in his throat and paused as he recounted how he’d tried to find his old music teacher to thank her, but she’d already died.  Both our eyes were glistening as he regained composure by focusing on the computer problem my dad was helping him solve.

As I’ve been mulling over these two episodes, I’ve felt very blessed to have grandfathers who value music and education the way I do.  The seal of approval means a lot coming from two college professors with a more than a few decades each of life experience. Not to mention they’re my two favorite old guys around.