Learning – teaching – learning – teaching

Reflecting on my fledgling practice as a singing teacher and building on my observations of other voice teachers last semester, has been a very rich experience for me, and educative in its own right. I haven’t been able to limit myself to learning and discovering about being a voice teacher in particular, and have found my reflections going deeper: what makes a teacher a good teacher (outside of effectively transmitting the skills and competencies of the discipline)? What are the conditions necessary for effective learning and how does one create them? What is it to step into the position of power and responsibility that a teacher has? This has led me to reflect on my teaching practice as it relates to a number of themes: holding spaceacknowledgement, impeccability, integritywitness, and service. For me, these themes relate to a variety of different, but similar roles: the teacher, the ritual leader, the workshop facilitator – anyone who is holding, guiding and facilitating processes of learning and change for others. This has been a very useful distinction / clarification for me that links this unit in vocal pedagogy with ritual studies, for example, and gives me plenty to ‘go on with’ as I take everything I’ve learned from MARCS into future work and life.

Holding Space: Safety, honour, ‘I’ve been there’

  • This is a quality or capacity that is intangible, and perhaps not clearly definable, but I believe essential. What does it mean?
  • In the first instance it is about creating and maintaining safe space. Without feeling safe, the (voice) student will not be able to open themselves, be vulnerable, let go of what they thought they knew, expose themselves publicly, and share their voice – ergo a deeply personal aspect of themselves…. All of which are necessary for effective learning, especially at any deeper levels than cognitive or informational learning.
  • To feel safe, I need to know that I am seen and respected for who I am, listened to and valued. So I believe that to create this as a teacher, I need to deal with myself in whatever way necessary (as well as taking care of the practical necessities) so that I can be present to my students in this way.
  • I also believe that in order to guide and facilitate processes where one must let go of certainties, and take big risks (therefore anything that relates to the voice and performance), I as teacher, need to have “gone there”… I need to have experienced the trust and vulnerability it takes to ‘go there’. This is something that is communicated tacitly to students that is intangible, but also in my experience clearly felt (if not articulable).

Acknowledgement: honesty, vulnerability, ‘returning to neutral’

  • I must be willing to acknowledge (appropriately) any breakdowns I’ve caused, to ‘fess up’ to mistakes, however difficult that might be, as this is the only way to restore trust that’s been broken.
  • Without acknowledgement of ‘what’s so’ the group dynamic will be out of kilter, undermining the trust and safety held in the group, and therefore inhibiting real learning and transmission.
  • Acknowledgement has the ability to ‘return to neutral’ the group dynamic, diffusing discordant energies and emotions.
  • My job as teacher is to acknowledge and not seek acknowledgement from my students.

Impeccability: being organised, timely, ‘on top of things,’ count-on-able.

  • I’ve realised that having a solid and dependable foundation of the ‘small things’ (ie. things relating to administration and organisation) must be in place in order for the big and important things to be built.
  • Impeccability in organisation is, in a way, the least of what’s necessary, but without it, the most important things – relationships, sharing, learning and transmission – will be hindered.
  • This is not about being rigid or holding excessively to practical necessities at the cost of spontaneity and adaptability to the contingencies of life. It’s about creating a solid and dependable container, or foundation, to safely hold the processes and dynamics of a group in flux (ie a group that is learning).

Integrity: honouring my word, holding myself to account

  • For me this is primarily about the relation I have to my word: what I say and write, ‘promise’ explicitly and implicitly. It’s primarily about holding myself accountable to my word, for without this, I cannot hold anyone else accountable to theirs. This kind of accountability is essential for the teacher / student relationship because it creates something solid, something dependable and something to stand on and create from.
  • Integrity is about having a clear yes and a clear no, communicating clearly and decisively so that the people around me know where they stand.

Witness: Really listening, really seeing. Beholding with care and without judgement.

  • This is a quality of attention one brings to a relationship that acknowledges the being and experience of another. It is about really listening; really looking, and holding another in one’s awareness without judgement or analysis (which are nevertheless important critical faculties of the teacher).
  • Part of this is being actually interested in my students. Asking them what’s important to them, wondering what’s going on for them, what makes them tick, what’s going on behind the surface.
  • The teacher – as the one who has more experience, wisdom, skill and knowing in the area being taught – also needs the capacity to witness that which the student themself is unaware of, in the sense of listening for the presence / absence then growing and development of a particular faculty or capacity.

Service: What am I in service of? Gathering and strengthening from the bottom up.

  • This for me comes from my faith in Christ, as the model of servant-leadership: the one who puts others first and above, and is of service from the lowest rung, always gathering and affirming and strengthening and uplifting the last and least. (aspirational goal!)
  • It’s about realising that it’s not about me. Teaching-as-service is about asking the question: What am I in service of?
  • It’s about love. Listening to where my students are at, what their needs are, what’s important to them, and crafting my teaching / facilitation from there. It’s about recognising and being responsive to the shifting energy of a group, and being willing to let it be different from what I thought it would be… Truly meeting the group where it is.