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Listening to the Music Of Teaching

By Paul Shaker — January 10, 2001 5 min read
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Can the instructional gifts we prize in great teachers be captured in standarized professional knowledge tests?

Lately, I have been working on a paper analyzing teacher testing with particular emphasis on those tests that measure professional knowledge, as distinct from subject-matter knowledge. Such tests purport to identify a candidate’s command of the pedagogy vital to effective teaching, rather than the arts and science content of a teacher’s education. I find such tests offensive because they presume that the act of teaching can be so narrowly and unambiguously defined. Education has always been a special joy for me because of my own teachers. I cannot imagine how the instructional gifts I prized in them and still remember could be homogenized and reduced to a timed, objective standardized test.

Mrs. Anthony, for example, was perhaps the most senior of my high school teachers. She was truly a throwback to another era. Her demeanor, her methods, her classroom environment were transplanted from the 1930s. Her field was Latin, and she took us from Caesar, through Ovid and Cicero, to Virgil and the Aeneid. She never left her desk during class. Her grade book was top secret. It didn’t matter who your daddy was, if you couldn’t do the grammar and translation, your grade reflected it. She disciplined with a glance or a glare.

Latin class was a trip to the past in more ways than one, and I enjoyed four years of it. The lessons of Rome were there to be learned, if one were committed, and the rewards are lasting a lifetime. Mrs. Anthony deepened my appreciation for the structure of language, for precision in expression, for the reverence we owe to what has gone before. I would compare the experience of her class with the mesmerizing quality of listening to Gregorian chant.

Mr. Ford, who taught us mathematics through calculus, had every segment of every lesson for 2½ years of curriculum sequenced and correlated with tests and overhead slides. One dared not miss a single lesson, lest he fall out of the cumulative structure Mr. Ford had created. He challenged students to move well into the advanced, abstract college curriculum that awaited us. At the same time, for those of us with a more practical bent, he built applied experiences, such as surveying, into the courses.

Being Mr. Ford’s student was to learning as Bach’s “Two- and Three-Part Inventions” are to listening. He was, on the other hand, not the teacher one would go to with a broken heart or because you were cut from the team. Like all good teachers, Mr. Ford was not all things to all people, nor should he have been. He was a vital part of a faculty that, together, composed my school world.


Another I remember was Mr. Morisa, a “science guy” who never lost his curiosity or the joy of seeing others learn. His appreciation of science far exceeded what we sophomores were able to grasp, and he made the experience more elusive by declining to use a textbook. He taught us from lecture, demonstration, experiment, and library resources. This approach was unnerving and stretched us big time. All the while, we could see his enormous sense of humor gleaming through: delivering the unexpected, refusing to see his beloved discipline packaged, keeping the essence of science— discovery—alive in his class.

Mr. Morisa was a role model for the young scientists among us. I would associate klezmer music with him and, not surprisingly, his origins were Hungarian. He operated beyond the conventional wisdom of teaching and broke the rules to the benefit of his students.


Jim Clancy taught speech and literature and coached our forensics team. He was fresh out of college and of a younger generation than were his faculty colleagues. He had a relaxed relationship with the curriculum: He didn’t make us grind through masses of material, nor were his tests overly difficult. What characterized his classroom, however, was his love of the writings of the Lost Generation. When he taught this literature, his feelings shined through. We could see a person whose life had been shaped by encounters with great novelists. And we learned that this could happen to us, too.

On countless Saturdays, Mr. Clancy traveled with us around the state, fostering our development as public speakers and debaters, giving his time freely to us in a very personal way. I think of Erik Satie’s “Gymnopédies” when I remember those days. Some great teaching goes beyond discipline, into the realm of emotion.

Coach Dimoro, on the other hand, was what I would call a progressive militarist, if you can imagine the combination. His modus operandi was discipline, drill, running, and calisthenics. All of these, though, were used in a larger context, one of commitment to excellence in performance and in student achievement.

Every student in my high school participated in the many intramural programs Coach Dimoro operated (for no pay and fewer thanks). His baseball team played its way to state rankings every year. He awakened many of us to the physical potential of our bodies, and to a concern for health and fitness. To this day, he remains focused on excellence, and his standards often exceed what is politically acceptable.

If any student needed someone of courage to stand up for him, he would seek out Coach Dimoro. When I think of him, I think of Henryk Górecki’s “Symphony No. 3,” because the path of high ideals is, more often than not, a lonely one.

As students, we vary widely, and a fine school, like a proper university, provides us with a range of experiences that differ essentially—not just cosmetically. We may learn from pedagogy that is in tune with our learning style, but we also may learn irreplaceable lessons from teachers who challenge us in discomforting ways.

One result of such discomfort, in my case, was that most of the teachers I have profiled were the objects of “parental revolts” while I was in high school. Their versions of excellence drew severe objections from influential townspeople. Because they had integrity in the practice of their profession, these teachers challenged privileged students. And they suffered the consequences.

After many decades in education, I am more convinced than ever of the value of these teachers’ work. At the same time, I believe less than ever that we can measure such teachers’ professional knowledge on a multiple-choice test. They had diverse, subtle, and sophisticated means of teaching us. Their methods were their own and as complex as their personalities. Teaching for them was an art, an act of love, and a gift of optimism for their students. I hear their music today—and every day.

Paul Shaker is the dean of the school of education and human development at California State University-Fresno. He graduated from Niles (Ohio) McKinley High School in 1965.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 10, 2001 edition of Education Week as Listening to the Music Of Teaching


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