A personal statement on teaching philosophy

A recent job advertisement asked for a personal statement on teaching philosophy.

This caught my attention, even during my depressive phase when it’s all I can do to get out of bed. In all truth, I try NOT to think about teaching. It’s something I’ve never felt particularly drawn to: I initially taught music because it was quite a time-efficient way to earn money, when I was both a sole parent of 2 kids and a part-time student. But I also dread teaching. I’m a bit of an introvert. Teaching forces me to become extroverted, loud, encouraging, big. I don’t like these things. But in order to carry heft in classroom/choral music teaching (because loud and noise management), one has to be loud, big, encouraging, strong. Also, you have to interact with people. It could be argued that teaching does not require extroversion or volume. But you show me a quiet music teacher and I’ll show you someone who only teaches classical guitar. Or harp. In a private studio.

Anyway. So. I’m required to think about my personal teaching philosophy.

thinking chimp

I’ve never been asked to reflect critically on the history or strategies of teaching, except in a recent job interview (which I buggered up). I’m a bona fide qualified teacher for Grade 5 to tertiary and beyond. I’m pretty sure I was never asked to think about how or why I teach the way I do. I was never asked to think about my personal ontology and subsequent epistemological position. Which, arguably, is needed if you’re going to be teaching other thinks to thunk.

I was also never asked how I learn. Or how others learn. Yet, back in the recesses of my tiny thunking thinker, I’m sure my Graduate Diploma of Education made me do some kind of philosophy of teaching module. Just cannot remember it. Which means it was a useless course because no memory of it. The ONLY thing I remember are De Bono’s hats. Which is really about managing management meetings, not teaching. Even my PhD allowed me to sidestep some of the great theories of edumacation (Dewey et al) to focus on the private singing studio master/apprentice approach.

I’ve been thinking recently about school mottos, vision statements and the like and how my own philosophy of teaching/learning has been shaped by these. There are a few I like. The first motto I like is the school I attended from age 10 – 15. The motto was: Age Quod Agis. We were taught this meant “do what you do, do well”. In other words, if you’re going to do something, you may as well do it really really well. Excellence presumed. Ok. I like this, although it makes making dinner a bit of a challenge. No reheated meat pies for me. Actually, this is hard for girls anyway, because we’re always taught to do everything perfectly, which means job hunting becomes a bit of a challenge – we’re often not prepared to attempt something until we have ALL the skills. And we play down our capacities all the time. So while I love this concept, in reality always striving for excellence can get in the way of actual achievement.

The other motto comes from a school I taught at a while back. I love the simplicity of this vision statement, even as the individual teachers there  (me included) had very little intrinsic respect for such fancy schmancy pedagogical concepts:

developing the whole person through timeless principles of learning –

  • To Know
  • To Do 
  • To Live With
  • To Be

with innovation and wisdom.

What a great statement. To know, to do, to live with, to be, with innovation and wisdom. In those words written by an anonymous someone (possibly a committee but a seriously good one), I see the history of education, of thought, of philosophy. I see metacognition. I see application of knowledge through concrete skill building. I see humanist principles and the development of the whole person within the world’s community. I see looking back at history (wisdom) and looking forward at what is yet to come (innovation). A lovely sentiment, not necessarily well enacted at the school but at least the idea is there.

So, a personal philosophy of teaching, as stated by the job application, surprisingly misses the most important thing here: the learner. There is no philosophy of teaching without the learner. Therefore, my personal philosophy of teaching is this: the learner comes first. Here’s the rest:

If I were to label myself as a teacher it would be this: I’m a caring facilitator. I believe the best learning comes from a learner’s intrinsic desire to understand how or why a thing works or happens. I help learners become independent thinkers and I don’t always give them the answers. I promote a safe space for learning – learners will learn best from their mistakes, so I do not ridicule error. I use encouragement and praise where due, and I aim to be respectful and caring at all times.

For me learning happens best when I am engaged and interested in the material and when the teacher is caring and respectful of my space and my need to be independent, but who understands when I need to ask a question or two. Goal pursuits theorists Deci and Ryan’s Self-Determination Theory had it down pretty well when they wrote about the three main needs of humans for successful goal pursuits: Relationship, competence, autonomy. Good relationships foster good learning, a sense of competence helps to promote more learning, and autonomy – a personal empowerment and sense of self – helps with feelings of self-esteem etc and fosters yet more competence. And the cycle continues. I like to add something about the sense of belonging to a community (my cultural psychology studies inform me of this stuff but so do Lave and Wenger with their Community of Practice), because we are social creatures and need to belong to and identify with a social group. So a good teacher fosters good relationships, helps her students develop competence, and creates a safe, encouraging learning community where autonomy is paramount.

On the down side, I’m not good with stupidity or willful ignorance, insolence, laziness or contempt. From adults and children alike. So don’t put me with someone who either doesn’t care about what they are doing or doesn’t want to be doing the subject at all. Which is why I have so much respect for teachers who have to teach subjects with students who don’t want to be there. And I also respect teachers who work with little children. Ugh.






Whoops. Well, that was quick.

I quit my job on Friday. It’s a casual singing teacher job at the local university which pays by the hour. It’s well paid but without any entitlements such as sick leave. I was due to work 120 hours this semester which is a substantial amount of money for what amounts to 3 full-time weeks worth of work. Problem was, a student decided they wanted to quit mid-year and learn from someone else, and then I was informed my pay scale was being reduced by $24 an hour. The combination of those two events tipped me over the edge. They were the straw that broke the camel’s back. 

I have been struggling with teaching for a while now. I am not a vocational educator. That is, I went into teaching because it was convenient. Teaching allowed me to take school holidays with my kids, it stopped me from being really poor and it was a stopgap between what I really wanted to do and poverty. As a performing artist, teaching is a valuable means of support between gigs. Paid by the hour, it’s quite lucrative. Divided by the year it’s not, but my work is specialised. 

I’m a good teacher. But I’m not a natural one. I’ve had to work hard to be competent because it’s a draining and exhausting occupation for an introvert. I give a lot of myself. The relationship between singer and teacher is pretty intense because of the complex interchange of embodied instrument and soul urge and sense of self. So when a student decides they want to change teachers it’s heartbreaking. There’s a lot of trust that goes into the relationship. Last week that trust was broken by this student, 3 days before the start of semester. 

Now, in my private practice I don’t give a rats if students want to leave. We’re performing a transaction here and it’s a negotiated one with a financial basis. They come and go and I don’t mind. They originally chose to approach me and I agreed to teach them. That’s fine. I have the authority and responsibility to control and conduct my business as I see fit. You’re only bound by the length of the invoice. So if students choose to stay it’s a positive affirmation of your worth. At the same time, I can choose to cease teaching a student if they’re not up to scratch. 

But in my tertiary position I wasn’t able to select the students.  So when they wanted to shift teachers I had no recourse. It’s a finite pool of students and I couldn’t just fill the space with another student. When you take on a tertiary student you are basically taking them on for 3 years. It’s a long term arrangement. Therefore you plan their education accordingly, and you can only trust that they will accept this long term planning. It’s also about sustaining a positive relationship with the student over this time. So when a student quits, it feels like you’re being told you’re not worth the investment. That’s heartbreaking. 

I’ve had a few moments like this in the last 6 months, and it has been getting to me. Last week I was given a teaching commendation by the university. Awarded every year to the top 3% of teachers across the university (that’s about 60 teachers, so guess the size of our academic staff), it’s based on our student evaluations of our teaching. Students have said they like me. It’s now proven. But if one rejection can send me in a tailspin it’s time to reevaluate my priorities. 

I felt like I was the teacher students wanted to switch from. It became a trickle I couldn’t control and it was impacting on my mental health. Combine this drop in self esteem with a kick-in-the-teeth pay reduction 3 days before the start of semester and I was done. No loyalty to their staff? I felt no loyalty to the university after these events. Luckily as a casual staff member without a contract or entitlements all I needed to do was give an hour’s notice of intent to quit. 

What about your other students, I hear you ask. What about leaving the department in the lurch? Actually, loyalty to the department is only as good as the treatment of its staff. I was not being treated kindly or well. As for the students: I’ll miss them. But I had stopped trusting them. I never knew which of my students would decide to up and leave my studio. Every semester I would hold my breath, waiting for the axe to fall. The anxiety was too much. And too painful. Because as a teacher you love your students very much. You want the best for them and you give them every opportunity to achieve their goals. But if every semester you wonder if you’re going to be dumped you start to protect yourself emotionally and this is not a good place from which to be teaching. It burns you out.

On top of this was my desire to do something that filled my soul’s urge. I’ve finished my PhD. I have the floppy hat picture and the testamur and the conferral letter. What now?

Well, it was time to give myself a push. Take a risk. Take a leap into the unknown. Challenge myself and stop using teaching as my safety blanket. 

I have a book proposal to write. I have jobs to apply for. I have a house to renovate and children to care for. I have a supportive, loving husband whose salary can support us for a little while on one income, and I have some new directions to find. I have a mid life crisis to manage! 

Time for a change. 

Thinking about those goals again…

About 5 weeks ago I wrote about some goals I was thinking of aiming for, mostly to do with my personal and career goals. I was thinking at the time that I’d like to write. Maybe a fiction novel, or create a book out of my thesis. A cabaret. Or some journal articles, even.

The other thing I thought of doing was applying for a gig as a singing lecturer down south. But as time has rolled by, I had to explain to my DH just today that, actually, I don’t WANT to be a lecturer of singing, especially not down south, where I’d be away from him and our house and our life together. He has been super supportive about this job application – urging me to apply – but I just don’t want to go for it. I don’t really want to be teaching at all, if I can avoid it. It’s not that I can’t teach, I can, really very well. But I’m burnt out from it. And as much as I enjoy Musical Theatre, and as much as I love singing, I’m finding a new energy for writing.

I’ve been writing in this blog for several years, mostly agonizingly self-indulgent little pieces about my research and the sheer craziness of doing a PhD. Now I think I’d like to make forays into fiction again. I was always quite a good fiction writer although I’m not sure I like my narrative voice very much. I tend to write best when I create a narrative voice and prose style that is sparser than the one I use for my stream-of-consciousness one you see here. Actually, I’m a bit of a bower bird: I can mimic quite passably the narrative voice of any number of good writers. But as with academic writing, my best work comes from finding my authorial voice and creative muse.

So, as the weeks go by since I got the PhD email, I’m turning once more to reading and writing. Lots of it. I’m thinking short stories and small scenes first. To rebuild my creative writing chops. And, no, I don’t think I’ll go do yet another course on how to write – I’m done studying for now!

I’m not out of the woods yet – I am clearly in some sort of mid-life crisis, one that thankfully does not involve buying a sports car or dallying with a younger version of my DH – but the panic is over.

I’m taking time to think.

Also, I have a house and body to renovate.

It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to

Hysterical with exhaustion, my 44th birthday yesterday was celebrated at the end of a VERY long day, with wine and good food and my husband and daughter.

Like many folk who teach music for a living my work is peripatetic and sporadic, therefore like all good musicians I rarely say no to any job. So it is I’ve found myself teaching singing 4 full days a week this year from 8.30am – 7.00pm with only a 30 minute lunch break most days. I’m told the best thing to do is ask a busy person to do something because they will make time to do it, and so it was with me. Found myself on Wednesday teaching singing for 4 hours, then tutoring music history for 3, then teaching singing for another 3 hours, with only enough time to drive to each venue before starting afresh. In that time I managed to write 4 quite important emails, redraft an essay question for 1st year music students, have several discussions with colleagues, then go out to celebrate my birthday.

I was so tired I frankly got quite merry on 2 glasses of wine. Unlike me – I’m a complete lush normally.

So, at the end of a frankly exhausting week, reeling slightly under the weight of not quite enough sleep and too much 1-2-1 singing teaching, my lovely hubby is taking me away for the weekend to a country mountain retreat. I’m taking my computer. He promises me there is no wireless, but I’ve assured him I don’t need it: I’m doing a lit review, not checking email! But before I get to spend this much-needed time with hubby, I have to meet with my supervisor, who will no doubt look at my rather paltry attempts to write my literature and discussion chapters and laugh and point.

Oh, well. It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to.

Keeping up appearances

It’s been a while since I wrote in my blog so I thought I should do some catch up reporting of events.

Firstly: I’ve been busy. Very busy. I’m teaching 37 hours a week at the moment. For those peeps who think that that just sounds like an ordinary week of work, sure, go right ahead. Think that. But teaching and knowledge transmission is a really specialised thing to do. Most classroom teachers teach up to 24 hours a week. Full time uni staff teaching one-to-one teaching have a maximum of 24 contact hours per week. I’ve chosen 37 hours. Why? Hmm. Need the money. But I also love my jobs. Singing teaching, like any music teaching, requires deep engagement with the learner. It requires great diagnostic skills of the human voice and body, both from a visual and aural sense. It requires one to think clearly about text, character and musically expressive communication, and it requires a whole lot of piano playing. It also requires one to be incredibly empathetic and understanding of the foibles that students bring into the lesson, and all that takes energy. Skills transmission? Meh. I’m also training students in the art of learning, being, and becoming singers.

So, I’m REALLY tired. All the time. But I’ve slowly got into match fitness mode, so to speak.

Secondly, 37 hours doesn’t seem like an overly onerous week. Sure! I can fit in 16 hours of PhD study on top of that. Said no PhD student EVER. Because from Monday to Wednesdays I teach from 8.30am – 8.30pm. The biggest break I have is 90 minutes. It’s also called lunch and staff meetings. So, what about Thursday? Sure. Thursday I finish at 4.30pm. Enough time to get home, walk the puppy, go to gym, then enjoy date night with DH. What about Friday? I finish before 1pm. Yay. Ok, so I have 4 hours there in which I can legitimately study. Have I? No. I’m buggered. I need to do the groceries, pay bills, do the business accounts, pr and try to clean the house a little bit before the weekend.

So, what about mornings and weekends? Well, here’s the thing. I’m not a morning person, and I force myself to go to the gym on Tuesdays at 6.30. Maybe as the year progresses I’ll be jamming 2 hours study into my mornings.

Ok, so what about the weekend? Yep, I have blocked 5 hours per day for study. Did I do any yesterday? No. I went to the gym, then I rested, cleaned the house a bit and shopped for groceries. Spent some time with the family. I did about 1 hour of work while watching tv. Sunday? Yep, you guessed it. The week’s study rolled into one frantic day.

Thirdly, exercise has become 2 days per week plus dog walking. Food has become something to eat to fuel my day, don’t care about the flavour, but I’m maintaining a reasonably low calorie count. Easy when one cuts out sweet food, pasta and potatoes. Still slim and trim, but I am aware that my work output is diminishing and that 2 days dedicated exercise is not quite enough to maintain a weight loss regime. Must…get…to…the…gym…

Fourthly, keeping the house clean is a diabolical task at the moment. So we’ve some plans to try and make it better. All cost a lot of money. The first is to spray paint the unbearable bathroom floor tiles, bath and shower recess. Cost: about $2500. The second is to hire a weekly cleaner. Cost: about $75 per week. Worth it? With a small, grotty puppy, yes it is. It means that at least the house will be dusted and the floors and bathroom cleaned to a high standard. The third is to hire a regular gardener. Cost? Unknown. But kind of on the “not this month” pile.

Keeping up appearances of being capable of doing everything is killing me. But in a good way. I like being this busy, and I hope that my study will become more targeted over the next few weeks. If not, I can say goodbye to my PhD. Because it will never get done without a supreme effort. Bring on my Yorkshire study retreat!

On the plus side, we’re just about ready to send through the final draft of our book. Then I can REALLY focus on the PhD. Promise.


Too tired…to…write

I would write a nice long post, but I’m too tired. Here’s what has happened this week (nothing bad, mind).

I haven’t lost any weight. But all my clothes are too big for me, so that’s ok. Even my size 8 pants from Laura Ashley are too big. I’m exercising regularly 3 times per week, aiming for 4, except I’m not really managing 4. We ARE walking the dog quite fast, though.

I’m working very hard. I have started teaching again, so my timetable is looking horrendous. No time for shopping or relaxation. I will have 37 hours teaching per week over the university semester. That’s one-to-one singing lessons and 2 tutes. Ugh. I love teaching, but even I’m feeling the pinch this week.

I’m finishing off a thesis edit and formatting the document, messy stuff. I’m writing a glossary, coordinating staff to get them to add to the glossary, and compiling the results for the Musical Theatre students. I’m TRYING to write the first chapter of our singing book so that I don’t have to worry about that again. This paragraph should be over by next week.

And I’m trying to finish off my PhD.

No way, Jose. So, there it is. And Poppy the dog is gorgeous, but very nippy for a little puppy. Annoyingly so.

And now: bed. Night night.

Back to the grind, in every sense!

DH and I arrived home from our Christmas holiday and we’ve returned to the usual grind of New Year activities. Today, I’m talking about grind. The grindstone, hard work, honing and polishing and refining of New Year’s resolutions and other travails.

I’ve identified four main areas of grind for me. The first is, of course, my health and fitness. Like so many during this holiday season, I’ve eaten and drunk way too much, and I’ve done no more exercise than an elegant stroll down the beach. Well, ok, the stroll was 8 kms long. I’ve probably put on half a kilo, but I’ve stuck pretty well to a pared down diet, with dessert being the main culprit. DH and I were married 5 years ago December 28, right in the heart of the festive season, so all our revelries occur in one week. Cunning, huh. And, of course, far too much drinking. Less than I would have this time last year, but still! So it’s back on the diet wagon (and aren’t I relieved about that!) and I have my first personal training session tomorrow afternoon. Ugh. That’s gonna hurt.

The second grind is to complete the works on the house we’ve organised. For me, that means sanding and painting during VERY hot weather. It’s going to be vicious. But it’s important to get a start on it before our carpenter comes back to build the remaining fence.

The third grind, and probably the hardest, will be to start up my reading and writing for my doctoral thesis, which is due to begin again in February. I had a lovely break from it and I feel much better now, but it’s time to get cracking again. I tried some of it today and boy, all I wanted to do was get up off the computer and clean the house or literally do anything other than study. That was hard. But it’s a resolution I’ve made to myself to complete it this year, as expected. So I’m starting with my methods chapter, because I need to do the reading for Narrative Inquiry methods again, and start to shape the chapter from its rather bloated state at present.

The fourth grind, and one much easier to sustain, will be to begin my singing teaching again. I love my teaching and while I’m enjoying the holidays, I’m looking forward to developing my practice for the year ahead. My times are quickly filling up and then when uni starts: whew! It’s gonna be a challenge to maintain the study and the teaching, as I’ll be teaching about 30 hours per week. In fact, I have to do as much study as possible before teaching begins because it’s so hard for my brain to switch from one activity to the other. I’m dying to do some professional development n singing teaching but until I finish the PhD I won’t have the time – or the money! So I’ll have to content myself with some reading instead this year.

4 grinds. A big year ahead.


So, to Melbourne.

Today I have finally realised that I am enjoying the heat of summer here in QLD. I actually like it. Some down sides include sweating a lot and needing to replace one’s clothes all the time, but really, I think I might be beginning to get the hang of it. Hmm. Maybe I’ll turn on the air conditioning for a little while anyway.

So, off to Melbourne I go, with hubby and suitcase in tow. Tomorrow. I’ve managed to spend a small fortune on Scotty’s gifts, which I ought to have expected, I guess, and will be spending rather less on my kids, who, after all, never get me anything. They’re not good with gift giving. Scott and I foolishly decided to get married in the most expensive month of the year, which was silly, really, because now I have a hard time keeping up with Xmas, New Year, and wedding anniversary all rolled up in one. I have to buy gifts for the little kids to give Scott, then I have to think of something for Xmas, then I have to find out the anniversary gift. This year it’s leather. An easy one to arrange! However, at the very time my teaching stops, I now have no money until nearly February. So I’m having to think of creative ways to maintain funds through this time. Teaching through summer is a good one! Another is keeping up with the ARC work. I’m really enjoying it now, and I hope that I’ll be able to keep working on stuff like this and developing my craft in this area. Another is uni teaching. Hopefully I can teach Score reading again, which is something I really really like, and I have all sorts of great ideas of how I might do this for 2011, if I’m allowed. So, eventually, Feb – June is taken care of, then all I have left or arrange is the remaining half of 2011. Maybe someone wants to give me a choir or two? Perhaps I should practice and put on a show? Hmm, not sure any money will be had from that. At any rate, getting through the next 18 months will be interesting.

Oh! and the dog is ALL better. Thank goodness, but I wish he wouldn’t choose to do this one week before Christmas. Now when will I be able to get the car fixed?! Never at this rate.