Education Opinion

Gettin’ Tough! Or Not.

By Nancy Flanagan — October 01, 2013 5 min read
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The social media circle in which I travel has been a-twitter this weekend over Joanne Lipman’s article, Why Tough Teachers Get Good Results. That circle includes a number of music teachers--my compadres--who were cheering Lipman on, as she praised her old-school, Ukranian-immigrant orchestra teacher, Mr. K., and his tyrannical teaching techniques, like calling students idiots, making them “rehearse until our fingers almost bled,” and correcting “our wayward hands and arms by poking at us with a pencil.”

What a guy, huh? Lipman says: “Today, he’d be fired.” She then goes on to make eight suggestions about how to fix education (you knew that was coming). The article is excerpted from her book, Strings Attached: One Tough Teacher and the Gift of Great Expectations. Cue the orchestra for a quick chorus of “What’s the matter with kids--and, presumably, their spineless teachers--today?”

I’m well acquainted with the blood and thunder school of band and orchestra directing. I’ve experienced it as student, colleague and observer. And for a time, as a novice music teacher, it was pretty much what I aspired to be: Uncompromising, demanding, a little intimidating. Not smiling until Christmas. Known for freezing wayward percussionists with a single, penetrating glare.

Problem was: I couldn’t really carry it off. It felt like an act. In the end, using fear and competition to build a music program wasn’t an authentic way for me to teach, although I know many award-winning instrumental music teachers who rely on rivalry, shame and anxiety as go-to instructional modes.

One teacher I know took great pride in the fact that out of 1500 students in his school, only about 35 were in the band. The rest, he admitted, he systematically pushed out through weekly pop quizzes designed to embarrass the unprepared, rank-ordering students and posting the lists in the bandroom, and grading on a curve. He had a very fine ensemble (and a light student load), but I couldn’t help wondering about whether he was more concerned about his own ego as super-director than giving as many kids as possible a chance to make first-rate music.

There are things to appreciate in Lipman’s article: She’s right about the value of drill and practice to make good habits and new skills sink in. The idea that perseverance matters more than raw talent is true, too. Every music teacher who’s seen the initially unpromising 6th grade trumpeter bloom into the lead player in the high school jazz band knows this.

Lipman repeats Carol Dweck’s excellent advice about empty praise being hollow, even counterproductive, for students. She reminds us that creativity is a matter of painstakingly accrued knowledge combined with the effort and courage to recombine it in new ways. All good.

But several points in her article drawing rave reviews don’t ring true for me. And--reminder-- I spent most of the last four decades teaching full-time, in a traditional K-12 school, and working with real teachers in a variety of settings.

Lipman says:

It’s time to revive old-fashioned education. Not just traditional but old-fashioned in the sense that so many of us knew as kids, with strict discipline and unyielding demands. Because here’s the thing: It works. The conventional wisdom holds that teachers are supposed to tease knowledge out of students, rather than pound it into their heads. Projects and collaborative learning are applauded; traditional methods like lecturing and memorization--derided as “drill and kill"--are frowned upon, dismissed as a surefire way to suck young minds dry of creativity and motivation.

I’m curious about why Lipman presumes that teachers are no longer strict, demanding, critical character-builders. Or why collaborative/project-based learning--in point of fact, it doesn’t get any more collaborative than playing in a school ensemble--"doesn’t work.”

My own observation is this: the 70s and 80s were widely derided as the era of the lightweight “cafeteria curriculum” (speaking of low expectations), and Americans have never really been satisfied with their public schools--remember 1950s Johnny who couldn’t read, unlike his Soviet counterpart, Ivan? Public opinion about “what works” in education swings back and forth, largely driven by nostalgia and inaccurate memories of our own teachers and schooling.

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. Don’t tell me that public failure or shame is essential in high-quality learning--it’s not.

Lipman also claims that stress makes students strong, which runs directly contrary to W. Edwards Deming’s first principle of building a successful organization: Drive out all fear.

In advocating for failure and stress as character-building education essentials, perhaps Lipman is thinking of students who come to school with a secure emotional safety net--home, parents, teachers whose values reflect those they’ve been taught. Perhaps students who have always received good marks and had mom and dad backstopping their every academic effort could benefit from lessons in resilience, understanding that they may not be the brightest star in the galaxy.

There are plenty of students, however, who have coped with failure and adversity from the outset. What’s motivating to them is a little honest success. Not more stress. And certainly not being called names or poked with a pencil. Teachers who do that should be reprimanded, and not for being “old-fashioned.” That’s never been OK.

So--do tough teachers get good results? Sure. When their students are emotionally prepared for intensive criticism. When kids believe their teacher is committed to their learning and cares about them, they’ll do almost anything to succeed. There’s a sweet spot in teaching, where students have determination to pursue material and skills that are just over their heads, trusting that the teacher is behind them, gently critiquing, pushing, explaining and even nagging.

That’s never gone out of style.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.