Did It Sink In Right Away?

Recently, I listened to some professional musicians talking at a barbeque about their favorite music teachers.  There was a bit of a boasting session going on, each musician offering up the story of the best musician/teacher they’d had the opportunity to study with, even if it was just one or two lessons.  One of the musicians, a bass player, caught my attention when he said,

“Whenever I’ve studied with someone really good, it doesn’t sink in right away.  It takes many years for me to really get everything they were trying to show me.”

The other musicians nodded in agreement. His statement rang true for me as well.  Some lessons you can learn right away but the most significant ones often take a long time. That has been my experience with my mentor from Bank Street, Madeleine Ray.  It has taken me ten years to truly understand on a deep level much of what she began teaching me years ago.

The musicians were making the point that they could savor even a few music lessons with a master teacher, since it took so much practice to fully integrate them into their skill and knowledge bases.  As a middle school English teacher, of course I connected this to my own students.  I’ve always thought that the impact I have on them can only partially be seen in the time I spend with them.  One of the mysterious and beautiful things about teaching is that we never really know the long-term impact of our work. Am I frustrated by this limitation? For some reason, I’m not. I do my best and my students do too.  If they come back and visit later and I se that they’re doing well, I’m happy for them and I smile that I’ve contributed in some way to where they are now.

I also connected the musicians’ conversation to our public school’s current invesntment in measuring short-term results of teaching through standardized tests.  In addition to all of the other limits of these tests, it seems that it’s been decided (by people outside our profession) that only the short-term impact of our teaching matters.  Immediate results may be easier to measure, but this practice is very shortsighted.  It misunderstands the nature of the teacher-student relationship and the role of experience in deep learning.

What skills that you learned from teachers sunk in right away for you?  What skills or understandings took much longer?  In these cases, did your earlier teachers fail because you had a moment of crystallization years later?  Did you fail because it didn’t all sink in right away?

Related categories: