In formulating my teaching statement, I draw from the work of the eminent psychologist Carl Rogers. Rogers, in A Way of Being, indicates that three characteristics are essential to the student-teacher relationship. These are congruence, empathy, and unconditional positive regard. The model I try to emulate when teaching is one that incorporates these three characteristics, and adds two more: teaching experience, and knowledge of the subject matter. In order to give a coherent picture, I will explain these five characteristics and the role they play in my teaching.
One way of talking about congruence is to say that a congruent person knows himself or herself well, and is able to communicate that knowledge to others. The approach to talking about congruence that I favor, though, is to highlight the way that congruent people appear to others: to put it simply, communications with truly congruent people seem honest and genuine. This honesty and genuineness is what I strive to convey during my lessons. One of my goals as a teacher is for none of my students to hold thoughts such as the following: “so the teacher said I played well, but what is he really thinking?” Congruence directs me to give feedback designed to present an accurate sense of the strengths, weaknesses, and improvements that are at play during the lesson. The importance of this is that the motivation to work towards and accomplish difficult tasks is one that ought to be encouraged rather than stifled. It is impossible to allow students to act upon and develop this motivation, in a meaningful way, if they are not given honest feedback.
Congruence is not enough (after all, people can be honest and genuine while being utterly mistaken about how they are perceived), and the role of empathy is to direct the student-teacher relationship in a way that mere congruence does not. Empathy is the ability to understand that others have thoughts and feelings that are just as real as one's own. It also allows one to learn something about what those thoughts are. Empathy allows me to adjust my teaching to accommodate the facts about how my students are experiencing their lessons. Sometimes, especially when I am working with young children, I encounter someone who seems to be confused about a violin-related or musical concept. As soon as I focus on trying to understand his or her experience of the lesson, however, I can usually discover the source of confusion and eliminate the problem. Without empathy, such a method would not be available.
Of course, one must also be a kind, warm person, and this is the role played by unconditional positive regard. Now, unconditional positive regard can be dangerous if misinterpreted. Emulating this characteristic does not lead me to express approval of mediocre work. Rather, it leads me to always communicate warmth, even when I must be critical. The purpose of unconditional positive regard is to create an environment in which students feel safe to develop their musicality without fear of being treated in an unkind manner. This has been especially important in some of the volunteer work I have done in areas where violent crime and poverty are daily realities. When students from these backgrounds come into my lessons, they know that, while I will hold them to my high standards of work ethic, they will be safe from personal attacks of any sort.
My knowledge of the violin is something that I value and always try to augment. I was once asked, by one of my more precocious 6-year-old students, why she couldn't hold the violin in the palm of her hand. I knew that answers such as "that's not the correct posture," "you'll injure yourself," "it will make it hard to play later," and "because I said you can't" would be disrespectful of her genuine curiosity. What I told her was that many fiddle players do play with their violins resting on the palms of their hands, but they are extremely limited with respect to how many notes they can reach. Then I demonstrated exactly how such a position would limit her and she was satisfied by that. I give that example because it exemplifies the kinds of answers I try to give without getting into the gory details of complicated violin techniques.
Experience is the final characteristic of the model towards which I strive. My goal, as a teacher, is to find the best way for each student to use his or her abilities to play the violin, and every new teaching experience I have had has made me more proficient at pursuing this goal.