In a recent TED talk, Charles Hazelwood, an orchestral conductor, recalls the early days of his career when he likened his conducting to a “rabid windmill.” The more animated he became with his body, the poorer the results. Trust cannot be formed unless you personify it yourself, he concluded. Later in his career he came to understand musical direction like holding a bird: if you hold it too tightly, you will crush it; hold it too loosely, and it will fly away.
Teaching, much like conducting, involves the same type of delicate balancing act between the enthusiasm of a “rabid windmill,” which will, at least, awaken the most comatose of students, and release, which allows their education, rightfully, to be theirs. I have gone overboard in my career in both areas, sometimes climbing on furniture or pounding the tables, or even randomly throwing books or boxes of tissues across the room to test the theory of free will. While this does capture student’s interest, as you imagine, even those who are still thinking about lunch or the dramatic story of their latest breakout or what’s trending on Twitter (sigh…), you become more of a circus act to them, pigeon-holed into the territory of side-show. Too much freedom, independent projects where they happily type away on their computers behind concealed screens can sometimes reveal that they’re, in fact, ordering a new pair of shoes or direct messaging their girlfriend rather than querying Fitzgerald’s use of hyperbole.
To balance the two is not a not a science and looks entirely different from one student to the next. Some need more guidance, even a remediation of the reason they’re doing anything at all to begin with, minus being forced to by authority figures they barely understand. Some just need prompting, directing their somewhat whimsical interests in a positive direction, and then a bit more autonomy to pursue them. Virtually all of them thrive from the knowledge that someone who they respect cares about what they’re doing, and can be impressed by their positive progress. That builds identity. That builds the elusive ‘self-confidence.’
This is the beauty of one-on-one instruction. While teaching sometimes affords the opportunity to provide this attention to individuals, it is only a few minutes between lunch and the next class or in a writing workshop. An expression that many teachers have is that these moments of individual instruction are “worth their weight in gold.” In practice, this is true: for all the moments of lecture or media or even class discussion, five minutes of individual attention is worth at least an hour of group work. This rings true because achieving the balance of hands on and hands off is a delicate act: and a teacher has a much better chance at finding it for one than a group of even just ten distractible, capricious, hormone-drunk future visions of ourselves. When that balance occurs, it often seems unlikely, but there is no limit to what can be accomplished.