The Cardinal Practices of a Humble Teacher

Teaching at a University is a dangerous post.

There is a quiet seduction to it, a worm in the ear that whispers the same thing over and over, and then you begin to believe it, and it changes how you perceive yourself, which is to say it changes how you perceive everything else in the world as it relates to you.

At every turn, the teaching life reinforces this one, singular idea. Your opinion matters more.

I mean, really, in what other line of work do groups of people flock together twice a week to hear you run your mouth for 60 minutes? Your opinion matters more.

Where else in life do people willingly submit to you their creative endeavors, to be critiqued and ranked according to your entirely subjective internal criterion? Your opinion matters more.

Who conceived of this bizarre environment in which people walk into my small broom-closet of an office, and wait expectantly for me to impart to them the secret wisdom of how to organize one set of frequencies next to another? Your opinion matters more.

All day long, in the repeated rituals of academic life, this mantra is enacted a hundred times. It is whispered low, just below the level of hearing, but loud enough to change how you view the entire world. And being told that your opinion matters, this is a dangerous thing to be told, when you are (relatively) young, and your character is not yet sufficiently formed, because it is, of course, exactly the sort of thing that you want to believe. It is entirely corrosive. It erodes the soul, which can only grow when it is humble.

In teaching music, opinion is the currency of the craft. The whittling down and building up of musicians is always done at the hands of someone who went before them into that world. The induction into the craft is always the imparting of perspective, the giving of opinion. To be told that your opinions matters more, in music, is to be crowned a Prince, complete with attendant court and vassals.

I am an addict at heart, to any kind of stimulant, and I don’t want to wait around to see what kind of track marks this mistress leaves.

So, this is my new project: to walk humbly in the midst of a dangerous environment. My plan is to repeat the steps of those teachers whose wisdom and humility I have admired, to imitate the practices that they have demonstrated, but never bothered to write down in a handly little list. So, I’ll just jot it out here:

The Cardinal Practices of a Humble Teacher

  1. I will spend time in the company of those who exceed me
  2. I will continue to learn new things
  3. I will admit my own ignorance, without pretense or excuse
  4. I will take creative risks in my field, sufficient to produce real failures


26 thoughts on “The Cardinal Practices of a Humble Teacher

  1. Morphea

    [quote comment="45007"]“It’s not that I don’t understand what you were trying to do, it’s just that you did it poorly.”[/quote]

    This is a good list.


  2. aly hawkins

    I think this is a good list even if you’re not a professor (which I’m not). Humility should be a high-demand quality for professionals of all stripes—imagine how much more pleasant working environments would be if everyone was teachable!

  3. Morphea

    Hey, whoa, Al’s right. Now I’m even more impressed.

    I especially like #1, which is the reason I’m hanging here with y’all.

    [sign language]You exceed me.[/sign language]


  4. Zack

    Yeah, I second Chad’s comment. I could teach you a few things, brotha – like ACCEPTING ONE’S SUPERBOWL INVITATIONS!

  5. Chad

    I actually feel a little badly for being smart alec. This is a wonderful post. Well done, sir, seriously.

  6. Morphea

    You think saying “sir” will make people believe that you’re finally getting down to the sensitive commenting? Never works for me.

    Embrace your inner smartass, sir. It’s what we all automatically click to your posts first for.


  7. michael lee Post author

    [quote comment="45896"]I actually feel a little badly for being smart alec. This is a wonderful post. Well done, sir, seriously.[/quote]

    Thank you. I’ve always known myself to be the most amazing writer ever on the topic of my own humility. It’s nice to finally be recognized by my lessers.

  8. Scot McKnight


    Two things: First, you’ve already figured out a major, major temptation for teachers.

    Second, you are on the right road of learning that our competence can’t be assessed by those we teach but by master teachers, peers, and the academy.

    That you’ve learned this so soon evidences character. I applaud your post and your wisdom.

  9. Sharolyn

    Mike, We could trade jobs for a few hours. Here are the lessons from my day as far as humility and music education go:

    1) Singing the lyric: “February Two, he’s out to play / Here he comes, it’s Groundhog Day!”

    2) Singing the lyric: “Pleasanton, you’ve got what it takes / to make a great city, in this state.”

    3) Instructing, “Don’t let the rhythm sticks touch your mouth.” (And “Rule Number One: No poking your neighbor’s eye out.”)

  10. JC

    [quote comment="45817"]I think this is a good list even if you’re not a professor (which I’m not). Humility should be a high-demand quality for professionals of all stripes—imagine how much more pleasant working environments would be if everyone was teachable![/quote]

    I agree with Aly. I was the top dog in a fairly sizeable consumer goods company and would get the same kind of attention from people who reported to me. And it is seductive. What I found later (but not too late!) in my career was that the best work usually wasn’t my work, but the collaborative efforts of those same people. As a result of listening and being open to other’s ideas, the feedback I received was that it was really empowering. The associates were more motivated and felt valued. The price you pay is that your ego doesn’t get fed at each meal, and that can be unsettling when you see many of your peers leaving the table stuffed. The work…whether its teaching or business…in the end, will speak for itself. Therefore, you shouldn’t have to do all of the talking. I firmly believe that it is the only way to go. Michael, well said.

  11. Daniel

    Wow, # 3 & 4 are HAAAAARRRRD.

    good stuff dude. Especially in a world where to get anywhere you must be able to effectively “sell yourself” (as a musician…per se).

  12. harmonicminer

    My opinion DOES matter more…. to my dog.

    Agree with all you said, Mike. But a careless reading of what you wrote might suggeest the unstated notion that maybe nobody’s opinion matters more than anyone else’s, really.

    I don’t buy that. And neither do you, I think.

    The point, to me: your very good advice is to put yourself in the company of those whom you see as exceeding you. The flip side: you have to understand that your students are doing exactly that with you. You are allowed to take yourself exactly as seriously as you take the advice or example of those by whom you feel exceeded.

    If you do that, your opinion DOES matter more, because it isn’t just “opinion” in the everyday, throw away sense of the term, it is expert insight and practiced application.

    I have a few musician friends who appear to me to live in some other universe than mine… I have no idea what’s going on in their heads… I listen very carefully, and watch closely, and figure out a little bit of it…. and that little bit I can pass on to my students. I try hard to give credit for where it came from. But I DO get the credit for doing that work, and my opinion of music it’s based on deserves more consideration than someone who hasn’t done it.

    Confession time: when I was about 35, I think I believed I knew what I needed to know about jazz. Boy, was I wrong. Thanks to Alex Galvan at Citrus College for opening my eyes and getting my attention, in the humblest possible way… by playing things I didn’t quite understand, but loved.

  13. michael lee Post author

    Phil, I agree absolutely with what you’re saying. I’m no great believer in a quasi-egalitarian “everything is all as good as everything else” wonderland, and I’m not trying to escape from the burden of having to develop (and then communicate) mature and nuances opinions that carry real weight. Let’s call that “informed perspective”, for the sake of argument.

    As a musician, I have both opinions and informed perspectives, but when I’m talking to my students, many of them don’t have the advantage of knowing which well I’m drawing water from. They don’t know that when I talk about which B3 drawbar stops to use, that’s informed perspective, but that when I talk about classical vocal tone production, that’s largely opinion. I get the same positive social feedback from espousing either.

    Scot’s comment that you have to weight differently the feedback of students and the feedback of peers, and “those who exceed you”, seems so stupidly obvious, but I’m just now starting to sort all of this out.

    When I started teaching, my oldest students were only 5 years younger than I was. They were, for all intents and purposes, still representative of my peer group, and it was a peer group that I wasn’t all that successful in navigating when I was a student (which is, I think, why all of us ended up here at the RoadHouse). To suddenly be back a part of that same environment, but in a position of authority and some respect, flipped me upside down a little bit. That positive feedback from them seemed like peer feedback, even though it wasn’t.

    Cool is directly a function of your opinion mattering, informed or otherwise.

    Wanting to be cool, wanting your opinion (informed or otherwise) to matter in the eyes of others, is a function of pride.

    So, thus this post, and my need to get past the desire to be so cool in 2007 that it somehow echoes back in time to 1997, which is really just a matter of pride, which is what this whole thing was about in the first place.

    Therapy session has now ended. You can all bill my insurance directly.

  14. michael lee Post author

    @ Sharolyn

    I have no idea how I missed your comment the first time, but I just laughed out loud and woke up half the neighborhood. That’s awesome.

    I might make “Don’t let the rhythm sticks touch your mouth” my office door quote for the week, and just see how many odd looks I get.


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  16. Sharolyn

    Thank you. I feel affirmed. :)

    What are some of your weekly office door quotes?

    If you ever can’t think of any, I’m sure we could help. They’d be taglines, only complete sentences.

  17. michael lee Post author

    “What would happen if everyone quit acting like music students, and started acting like musicians?”

    “This is not a hobby.”

    “Log off! Go Practice!”

    “Meaningless musical metaphors, espoused while you wait!”

    “Talking about music is like dancing about architecture.”

    “You know, you can play Xbox and surf myspace at home for a lot less than $30k a year.”

    “Yes, the sword is real. Enter at your own risk.” (Gretchen gave me a sword for Christmas)

    “How you spend your minutes is, of course, how you spend your life.”

    that sort of thing. Mainly pithy truisms that students then deface by adding extra words, or erasing some.

  18. Eric

    Thanks for the Cardinal Practices of a Humble Teacher.

    My first teaching experience was as a nervous TA coaching a chamber music ensemble. It wasn’t hard to be humble when I really wasn’t convinced I had anything to offer. I don’t think I’ve ever lost the sense that I’m not sure I have something worth hearing to say, but neither can I claim humility.

    Most of my teaching nowadays involves coaching amateur chamber ensembles. It’s easy to forget that the people I’m addressing aren’t only amateur recorder players. In “real life”, many are brilliant and highly respected doctors, lawyers, mathematicians, historians, linguists, mechanics, etc. In “the company of those who exceed me” in their own fields, French and Italian translations I’ve provided have been vastly improved and pronounciation amended, countless musical mistakes drawn to my attention, dates, historical facts and even acoustical observations corrected – always gently and respectfully. Their humility has humbled me, and been a true blessing.


  19. Sharolyn

    “I will take creative risks in my field, sufficient to produce real failures”

    I had these words in mind today as I taught class piano for the first time to 39 second graders with 21 keyboards. It was actually pretty fun!

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  21. Gretchen

    Caught this in 3 From the archives. Love it.
    How ya doing on this list now over two years later, with more responsibility, more titles and a bigger office ? ;)

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