Tough teachers are the best

book

Tough teachers teach more, writes Joanne Lipman in the Wall Street Journal. Lipman is co-author, with Melanie Kupchynsky, of Strings Attached: One Tough Teacher and the Gift of Great Expectations.

The book is a paean to Jerry Kupchynsky, a Ukrainian immigrant who taught orchestra at a New Jersey high school for 40 years.  He “called his students ‘idiots’ when they screwed up.” They loved him.

Today’s teachers “are supposed to tease knowledge out of students, rather than pound it into their heads,” writes Lipman. “There is something to be said about a teacher who is demanding and tough not because he thinks students will never learn but because he is so absolutely certain that they will.”

Mr. K’s former students were successful in a variety of fields.

 “He taught us discipline,” explained a violinist who went on to become an Ivy League-trained doctor. “Self-motivation,” added a tech executive who once played the cello. “Resilience,” said a professional cellist. “He taught us how to fail—and how to pick ourselves up again.”

Lipman believes in eight principles of learning.

1. A little pain is good for you.
2. Drill, baby, drill.
3. Failure is an option.
4. Strict is better than nice.
5. Creativity can be learned.
6. Grit trumps talent.
7. Praise makes you weak . . .
8. While stress makes you strong.

Plenty of today’s teachers are strict, demanding character builders, responds Nancy Flanagan, a veteran music teacher. “Tough teachers get good results . . . when their students are emotionally prepared for intensive criticism,” she writes.

Lipman is a big fan of injecting failure into the classroom. Educators, she says, need “not be as concerned about the negative effects” of picking winners and losers, and cites a study where college musicians who placed low in auditions suffered no harm to their self-esteem.

Hey, I’ve no problem with voluntary competition–winning and losing on the volleyball court or the debate floor, vying for roles in the school play or college musical ensembles. I have witnessed first-hand, however, the corrosive effects of turning the classroom into a playing field, and every lesson and assignment into a contest. I abandoned the familiar practice of seating my band students in ability-based “chairs,” with these results: more kids in the program, more students accepting the challenge of individual solos and ensembles, higher levels of performance.

Students “who have coped with failure and adversity from the outset” are motivated by “a little honest success,” writes Flanagan. “Not more stress.”

About Joanne

Comments

  1. Michael E. Lopez says:

    1. A little pain is good for you.
    Situationally true.

    2. Drill, baby, drill.
    True. Perfect practice makes perfect.

    3. Failure is an option.
    True. It’s even true when we pretend it’s not.

    4. Strict is better than nice.
    Situationally true. Mostly true.

    5. Creativity can be learned.
    False, strictly speaking. Creativity requires learning. And creativity can be practiced. That’s not the same thing, though.

    6. Grit trumps talent.
    Situationally true. Mostly false.

    7. Praise makes you weak . . .
    Situationally true. Mostly false.

    8. While stress makes you strong.
    Situationally true. Mostly true.

    • 2) I think the German adage – Practice makes the master – puts it better than practice makes perfect. And yes, there is such a thing as bad practice.

      5) Interesting. I suppose I could also schedule some time to be spontaneous.

      6) I’d think mostly true. Genius is 99% perspiration, 1% inspiration – Edison. Not an exact parallel, but a good proxy?

      7) Yeah – I think most kids are pretty good at figuring out when adults are blowing sunshine. They’re just polite enough not to laugh at us.

      • Richard Aubrey says:

        Sean. Plus, the kids know their grades depend on seeming to believe the teachers.

  2. My child had a b. director who eliminated chairs..instituted good ol’ boy seating, which meant the top players could not physically play the notes required by their parts at all. That meant the music had to go down 1-2 levels.

    Same story as math isn’t it? Slow it down, reduce the pace, be more inclusive, no one ends up being ready for college at the end of 12th grade, then the college profs notice, then people leave public for private.

    Group by instructional need works just fine. You want a higher group, you work for it instead of making those who are ahead of you wait for years.

  3. Extracurriculars, whether performing arts or athletics, have a long history of requiring practice, grouping by ability/preparation and requiring mastery before advancing. Even the most talented reach a point where they must practice or fall behind (and I’ve seen many talented athletes fall behind and drop out because they refused to put in the effort) Only in academics is there the pretense that “all” can learn the same material, in the same time, in the same room. Find sand, insert head.

  4. The seating method that I’ve seen work for retention and promoting everyone’s advancement is the method where the students are ranked by someone who is qualified to judge and then seated in the order of 1st chair 1st part, 1st chair 2nd part… 1st chair nth part, 2nd chair 1st part, 2nd chair 2nd part… 2nd chair nth part, 3rd chair 1st part, 3rd chair 2nd part…3rd chair nth part and so on with the qualifier being that one cannot be seated in a part that one doesn’t have the physical ability to play. So your newest brass player isn’t going to destroy his chops trying to play at the extreme high part of the range..instead he has an opportunity to build up to it, as the students who have already reached that level have done. Your lead clarinet who has no sense of pitch isn’t going to be in the position of tuning the entire orchestra.
    .

  5. The seating method that I’ve seen work for retention and promoting everyone’s advancement is the method where the students are ranked by someone who is qualified to judge and then seated in the order of 1st chair 1st part, 1st chair 2nd part… 1st chair nth part, 2nd chair 1st part, 2nd chair 2nd part… 2nd chair nth part, 3rd chair 1st part, 3rd chair 2nd part…3rd chair nth part and so on with the qualifier being that one cannot be seated in a part that one doesn’t have the physical ability to play. So your newest brass player isn’t going to destroy his chops trying to play at the extreme high part of the range..instead he has an opportunity to build up to it, as the students who have already reached that level have done.A lead clarinet who has no sense of pitch isn’t going to be in the position of tuning the entire orchestra.
    .

    • Richard Aubrey says:

      lgm
      You bring up an interesting point, one not necessarily restricted to music. You can actually hurt yourself by going beyond your physical capacity. I am told the opera world has a number of hangers-on who blew their larynx–whatever that means–trying for something the larynx simply could not do.
      Kathryn Jenkins, Brit star with a popera niche said once she had at least three years before she was up to some major female opera role. IOW, she would either not manage it or her physical capacity would be irreparably damaged if she didn’t work up to it.
      Just as well, don’t think she’d want the pay cut.
      I suppose the same could be true of a small freshman put against an all-league nose guard. In addition to getting hurt, he’d fail the team, and would have a senses of failure.
      Other items–school paper, yearbook, student council, leadership positions in various clubs which are all run by kids–are less forgiving and more demanding of performance even if less physically dangerous. And even if you don’t get down and dirty in one or another, if you’re just going along with the program, you can see the reality. Who’s in the weight room. Who’s staying late to edit the submissions for the paper. Who isn’t.
      Sort of like being maybe ten years older than the way you’re treated in class by the professionals.

  6. Richard Aubrey says:

    In grades 7-11 we had a two-hour block called Common Learnings. It mixed history, the associated literature, and writing. In grade eleven, I got the feared Bev Jones. It was tough, and even tougher if you didn’t care for it, which I mostly did.
    Senior year, senior composition….there was Bev Jones.
    She got me and some of my less well-educated friends in college through a number of term papers. As in I would occasionally read and suggest MAJOR corrections, fixing real howlers, in my friends’ papers.
    Always been grateful.
    But scary. Not mean. Demanding.