As is usual for this time of year, I have been tootling around the UK leading INSET sessions for various different music services. At these sessions have emerged two clear but contradictory themes.
Many teachers have expressed how important it is for children to be allowed to make mistakes. There is a real feeling that we are heading down the wrong road in today’s education system, in which children are forced to make linear progress week on week, year on year, and must never, ever fail at anything. The teachers I spoke to felt strongly about creating within their music lessons a safe space for pupils to make mistakes and learn from them. The purpose of this is not just to give respite from the relentless march of linear progression, but also to fit our students for the workplace, where it is imperative to be able to cope with and learn from mistakes.
It is clear that these music teachers want to create an environment devoid of blame and encouraging of useful error for our pupils. But do they extend themselves the same courtesy? Apparently not! I lost count of the number of teachers who thanked me for my ‘honesty’ when I spoke of the skills and curriculum areas that I find difficult (some impossible) to teach. Many of them confessed that they encountered the same problems but had assumed they were a product of their own inadequacy. Others started conversations with phrases like ‘I’m only self-taught’ or ‘My degree’s not in music’ and went on to apologise unnecessarily for what they perceived as their inherent weaknesses.
Why do we judge our pupils by one standard and ourselves by another? Why can we see that the demands put on pupils are ridiculous and counter-productive, but berate ourselves for not meeting a similar set of standards? Doesn’t it make you a better teacher if you have to strive to overcome problems? If you have to think creatively, imagining new scenarios and alternative solutions? If we all knew everything, how would we learn anything? If we all knew everything, how would we cope when our pupils can’t understand?
Let’s agree to cut ourselves some slack. Let’s allow ourselves to make mistakes. Let’s make our lessons a safe space for ourselves as well as our pupils.
Dr Elizabeth Stafford
11th September 2017