3M Teaching Fellow Maureen Volk on celebrating success

Music teacher breaks down big concepts into small steps

I was first attracted to the idea of teaching at a university because it offered a steady salary for doing the thing I really loved: playing the piano. Having to do some teaching in return seemed a small price to pay. I had no formal training as a classroom teacher, nor had I studied with a piano teacher whose teaching style I wanted to emulate. I was uncomfortable with the “great teacher” model common in music conservatories, where demanding, often abusive, teachers were viewed as near-gods by terrified students. At the same time, I didn’t want to be a “nice” teacher who nurtured students to mediocrity. So I arrived at Memorial University with ideas about the kind of teacher I didn’t want to be, but no clear picture of what my own teaching might be like, and even less understanding of why.

Volk is a 3M National Teaching Fellow. Click to read about all 10 winners.

Two influences finally helped me clarify my pedagogical approach. After suffering a thumb injury and being unable to play the piano for more than a year, I started studying piano with Edna Golandsky, a teacher in New York who specializes in helping injured pianists return to playing with a healthier technique. My intuitive but vague ideas about piano technique were gradually replaced with a more detailed and accurate understanding of what was happening in the arms and fingers when we play the piano. I became better at diagnosing my piano students’ problems and finding ways to break down solutions into manageable steps. My students and I were on a journey of discovery together, resulting in faster progress and less frustration. At the same time, I began reading books on university teaching. The most influential were by Stephen D. Brookfield, who made me question my assumptions about teaching and learning, and opened my eyes to the emotional aspects of what I had viewed as primarily an intellectual process. My classroom teaching had always been content-oriented; he made me think about the learner.

I now characterize my teaching approach as a combination of humanist and geek. My beliefs about students are essentially humanist: that students have an innate desire to learn and grow; that they are willing to work hard if they can see that they are making progress; that they are more willing to take the risks needed for learning when they are not afraid; that they are more likely to care about learning if they believe that it is relevant to them; and that they are entitled to respect and the benefit of the doubt. I try to make sure that the studio and classroom are places where they are not made to feel ridiculous when they make “mistakes.” I try to break down larger concepts and skills into manageable steps and celebrate student successes, even the small ones; many small steps add up to big progress. Most of all, I avoid using the word “should” when dealing with and thinking about students. Thoughts such as, “They should know this by now,” or “They should be working harder” prevent us from figuring out what students actually need from us.

With regard to content, I’m a geek, an obsessive musician and a scholar. I get a kick out of wrestling with abstractions and trying to create order out of intellectual and aural chaos, looking for the simplest and clearest ways to organize and present ideas, then finding new materials that disrupt the structure so I have to start over. I’m obsessive about organizing my courses. A well-organized curriculum makes learning easier and gives me more freedom in the classroom, because I can respond to the unexpected without fear of getting off-track; the better you know the map, the more side excursions you can safely take. I also have a geek-like fascination with teaching as an ongoing investigation into effective pedagogy: experimenting with applications of new ideas to see what really works in promoting student learning.

I no longer consider teaching the (albeit small) price I pay for the privilege of making my living as a musician. Instead, music has led me to an obsession with the equally fascinating world of teaching and learning, a world that has enriched my professional life in ways I never could have imagined.

Volk, the associate dean of music, teaches piano performance at Memorial University in St. John’s.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.