Where Do Evaluations Fit In My Teaching Philosophy?

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In the most recent issue of Clavier Companion, new editor Dr. Pete Jutras wrote an insightful piece entitled “Measuring What Matters.” It was very timely for me as my students are preparing for our local piano festival, and as I’m weighing the question of what other evaluations I might choose to become involved in next year.

Incidentally, Dr. Jutras teaches pedagogy right down the road at the University of GA and is hosting what looks to be a fabulous pedagogy symposium on February 20th. If you’re in the area, check it out. It’s free! Now back to the topic…

Jutras asks, “Is our profession measuring what matters?”

He points out that the use of Gross Domestic Product to measure the success of a nation, while conveniently quantifiable, does not necessarily measure that nation’s level of happiness. It turns out that some of the happiest nations aren’t the ones who are the most economically successful. Most of our K-12 private piano students will not become performers or pursue degrees in music. Jutras asks, “Are we considering that success can mean very different things for different people and at different times? How do we measure our ability to meet our educational and philosophical goals? Do we think about and account for a happiness quotient? Or do we revert back to the easy-to-understand numbers? The I+ festival rating, the second-place trophy, the finalist of a major international competition?” Jutras is quick to point out that he’s not against evaluations and competitions; he’s just suggesting that we ask some important questions about what it means to measure an artistic endeavor such as playing the piano. Since I’ve already been asking those questions, I decided to do some thinking out loud here.

I think that evaluations can be great tools, and I’ve seen definite benefits from participating in our local festival. So many benefits, in fact, that I think I want to add another program to the mix. But, I’ve also known students who ended up quitting piano rather than deal with the overwhelming demand of some of those programs – students who otherwise loved their piano study but who loved many other things, too, and had heavy homework loads. On one hand, I want to provide my students with the best opportunities, and I want them to have the same opportunities as their friends who study with other teachers. And yet, I also want to teach them that music study has a higher purpose than winning awards. Unfortunately, once you start with these programs, the students and parents attach a huge level of importance to them, so I’m trying to develop some guiding beliefs to help keep things in perspective, both for myself and for the students and parents. Some of these are worth their own blog posts. So, consider this an introduction.

1. One size does not fit all. Some organizations actually reward teachers if all of their students enter at the most demanding level. While it may be perfect for some, I don’t believe it’s appropriate for all of my students to participate at the highest level. The needs, goals, and life situations of individual children are more important than prestige for my studio. (Are there evaluations out there that reward teachers for using good judgment about matching individual children to a particular level of demand? I’m just saying…)

2. The evaluation should not dictate my curriculum. Whatever the subject, education should be richer and more creative than what the test covers. One of the things I enjoy most about private teaching is that I have the freedom to chuck my agenda entirely when a student comes in with a burning desire to compose their own music or spend an entire semester delving deeply into a single composer. Activities like these often result in more real learning (and that happiness quotient) than slavishly following a linear outline, but they don’t necessarily prepare a student to pass an evaluation. So, I want to be flexible and and willing to pass up on the evaluation if the situation warrants it. I’m definitely willing, but the harder job is communicating to parents the value of being flexible over getting the certificate for that year when you’ve pitched the importance of that expensive test to them in previous years and they’ve been proudly hanging each successive year’s certificate on the wall.

3. Evaluations are great tools. Used judiciously, I do believe that evaluations can motivate students to do their best work and help support a feeling of accomplishment. My desire to help students enjoy music should not be at the expense of striving for personal excellence, which is a deep source of soul-satisfying pleasure. I’m not in the business of offering musical activities as recreation with no real demand. I don’t believe that would meet the happiness quotient. Setting and achieving personal goals takes hard work. Evaluations rightfully recognize that work, and it’s not just okay, but fully worthwhile to shoot for and enjoy the recognition. So, at the end of the day, I DO like evaluations and I DO want my students to experience the external approval they offer. I just want a lot of flexibility, and I also need to be sure that I’m teaching them to keep it all in perspective. External approval is wonderful, but if we’re going to raise healthy students, it has to be balanced against the following truth:

4. The worth of making music is not to be derived from a festival rating, competition ranking, diploma, prestigious career, or any other form of external approval. This one deserves its own post, too. I can only scratch the surface in a paragraph. It’s great to use evaluations as tools to further musical growth, and I do reward my students with things like certificates and medals for working hard, but I believe the quest for a bigger trophy shouldn’t be the foremost reason we work to achieve our own personal best. I don’t think that the answer lies in taking away incentives, but I do think that students at least in middle school and up should be taught the importance of answering this question: “Beyond the stickers, certificates, trophies, diplomas, prestige, applause, or paychecks, why do I make music?” And then, “Is my current study satisfying my current purpose?” I think young students need guidance from parents and teachers to develop a realistic purpose for study and a realistic plan for the role music will play in their future if it turns out that they aren’t going to be concert artists after all. Then they need to know that it’s okay to work very hard to learn to play very well even if the ultimate purpose is to play for personal or spiritual growth, for pleasure, with family or friends, to be able to teach, or to facilitate private and/or corporate worship.

So, I’m looking for an evaluation program that offers a lot of flexibility, and I’m looking for ways to communicate my values to my students. I’m very interested to hear other teachers’ thoughts on this subject. Am I just over-thinking all of this?

1 thought on “Where Do Evaluations Fit In My Teaching Philosophy?”

  1. I completely agree with you: Evaluations are great tools – effective, motivating and useful. Thank you for posting this as your thoughts and experiences on issues with relevance to evaluation as powerful tools in making our students more attentive and participative, can surely help most music teachers and music studio managers like me in many ways. I know that learners do appreciate it whenever they are evaluated; they have become more motivated and excited. Well, on a personal note, I know that I am happier and more fulfilled whenever I am evaluated by my subordinates, colleagues, and even the students. It just gives me the drive and the enthusiasm to move further and do my best at all times. It's more of an inspiration to me. Anyway, please also share more relevant studio management tips and resources – giving us more rooms for effectiveness and efficiency. Thanks again and see you around. Cheers!

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