It was a fabulous experience to be part of and I came away, as a fellow teacher, having learned all sorts of things that I have been working to bring to my public health teaching. Christopher, who led the workshop, is a gifted teacher and much of what I have taken away I picked up from his approach to teaching. However, the group shared some of the leadership and teaching tasks and each of members brought something useful that I plan to use in my own practice.
Sometimes the best way to revitalise your teaching is to spend some time being "the student" again. So here are 10 things I learned about public health teaching from an acapella boy band.
1. Create a sense of shared purpose and joy.
This is really the key to all I learned. Something amazing happened in the workshop and I think everyone who participated felt part of something bigger than a short-lived workshop choir. Read the comments on the band’s website, or on their Facebook page to see how the experience of working together to produce 3 beautiful joyous acapella songs has resonated long after the week in July.
Since coming back from Hobart I have been actively trying to bring joy into my teaching. It’s not a word you often hear in the same sentence as ‘university lecture’, but I am trying out a number of different approaches which seek to lift the spirit and make people smile. I have succeeded if people go away from my classes feeling better than when they arrived (singers know this is one of the main reasons for coming to rehearsal even when we are too tired or don’t feel like it)
2. Do things that bring everyone on to the same page - start each class that way – find a brain equivalent of a physical and vocal warm-up.
Before we start singing, choirs and vocal groups spend time warming up, physically and vocally. I spent some time trying to think what a brain-equivalent of a choir warm up would be. In the end I decided that anyone could benefit from a quick physical warm-up. Fair enough if you come to a public health class you probably don’t expect to be asked to sing, but to move your body a bit, I decided was surely not a problem. So now I begin most classes by asking everyone to stand up, stretch their wrists, gently stretch out their neck, reach for the ceiling and then touch the floor, before standing up again and letting out a big huff (then shake it out). It takes about 2 mins.
I can say without a doubt it lifts the spirits of the room and more than one person has said how much better they feel after doing it. I started out doing this with my small third year class of public health majors. They seemed to enjoy it, and because our class is small, we form a circle – which they have dubbed ‘the circle of love’! (Again, not something you hear every day in a university class!!) Emboldened I have done it when I was providing a couple of guest lectures to our big class of more than 200 first years. When that worked I decided why not try this on a really big scale? I gave a talk to over 800 prospective students and their parents at our university open day and before I started I asked them all to stand up and do a quick physical warm up. The buzz afterwards was electric. They actually cheered before sitting down. Ice broken! I’m not sure what they thought, but I doubt they will forget my talk…
3. Don't try to pander to differences. Instead find common humanity, shared passions, assume everyone, no matter what experience they bring, can learn something.
One of the challenges for The Exchange in running the workshop was a very wide range of ages among the 100 participants, which included members of a high school girls choir, young adults of a similar age to the band (in their 20s) and a whole lot of choristers and singers who were much older than that. So the diversity of the group could have been a stumbling block. However, everyone there had chosen to spend 5 days of their holidays in that workshop for probably one main reason – we all love to sing. This was a great foundation for working together. Over and over the band thanked the participants for being willing to learn from people much younger than many of us.
As teachers we need to remember that openly and explicitly acknowledging your students’ expertise about whatever it is that you are teaching, and helping them see that we are all learning together, is immensely empowering. In my classes I also try to remind students that they are the public health practitioners and researchers of the future. They will be the ones who have to come up with the solutions to the problems we are studying. I hope that my enthusiasm for public health rubs off on my students like the obvious enthusiasm Christopher has for teaching and performing spread to the workshop participants. It was contagious!
4. You can build rapport without sharing much or any personal stuff.
Sometimes the generation gap between you and your undergraduate students (most of whom are around 20) can leave you wondering what you can do to connect with them on a personal level? My experience in the Exchange workshop showed me that you can make that connection and build that rapport without needing to share much of your personal life with your students (something that many of us probably actively avoid). We spent 5 days with working with the band but it was only on the stage at the concert we learned that two of the members had recently started dating new girlfriends (one of them a girl from Perth). So rather than sharing all the details of their personal stories with us the band simply acted like a human beings, when they could have chosen to be quite distant (they had just completed a 30 country tour of Europe with a famous boy band and could easily have adopted rock star pretentions). If you can find a way to show your humanity your students will accept you are a human being without your personal life needing to be in view.
5. Meet your students where they are - be flexible enough to do what they think they need as well as what you think or know they need.
Participants of the workshop in Hobart sang three songs on the stage with the Exchange at their headline performance. I took a small solo in one of the songs. Doing the solo didn’t particularly worry me except that I had absolutely no idea what the song was we were singing, having never heard it at all until we began to learn it the day before the performance. Fredo, one of the members of the group sat down with me at the piano while I worked out the structure of the song, and then sang me in to my solo bit so I could get the timing right. In the end we made a recording on my ipad that I could go away and listen to. It turned out fine in the end when I sang it ‘for real’. But what Fredo did was patiently sit with me while I worked it out my way, even though he knew that all I really needed was to hear that short little phrase to lock it in.
Even though we often know more about our subjects than the our students and they look to us for guidance, sometimes we need to do what they need, not just what we know will get them the answer, fix the problem they are having, or produce the best work via the shortest route. Teachers know this – it was really good to be reminded why it matters.
6. Don't be afraid to hug. Find a way to give metaphorical hugs if physical hugs are not appropriate.
On the stage during the performance, Aaron, another member of the band came and stood with all the soloists and when I had finished my little solo bit gave me a hug. Sounds like nothing, but although I stand up in front of conference halls, and lecture rooms and talk about public health to lots of people, I don’t usually stand on a concert stage, in front of a paying crowd of 1000 people, under lights and on mic and sing. Knowing that Aaron literally had my back was immensely reassuring and boosted my confidence that I could do it (I knew I could but it was great to be reminded).
7. Support your students when they are putting themselves out there.
Let them know you've got their back. Lead by example. Encourage your whole class to do the same thing. We've all got each others' backs. Education is not a competition even though it can feel like one.
This is working really well in my third year class. Basically I have just explained to the students this is how I want us to approach each lesson and so far they have responded by doing just that. Realising the participating in class discussion is not for the benefit of the teacher – it is mainly for the benefit of your fellow students. I ask my students to lead a tutorial (in groups) each fortnight, so they do have to put themselves out there and they need to know the other students will be supporting them not waiting to see if they stuff up. And when they present their major reports to an audience of up to 100 at the end of semester I hope they will see each others' successes as their success.
8. Have high expectations but be realistic about what really matters and help your students to recognise that too.
The Exchange workshop choir learned three songs with multiple harmonies in just over 3 days ready to perform to a paying audience. Christopher reminded us that almost noone comes to hear you perform badly - they want you to succeed. So while they never wavered from expecting us to sing the right notes at the right time, all the members of the band and Christopher in particular just asked us, above all, to have fun. That is what the audience wants to see.
Giving us that sense of perspective meant that when we took to the stage we were pretty relaxed and we did have fun. Helping our students to know what really are the important aspects of their learning (probably something along the lines of the generic attributes) can help them to prioritise and to focus appropriately. In my third year class the students are creating a portfolio that shows their learning journey in public health over the last 3 years. I have told them that the mark is the least important part of the process. I have even asked them to swap their portfolio with another student before submitting it, to share the learning process.
9. Be enthusiastic, be generous, be critical but in a positive way. If something is good, say so.
10. Don't be afraid to stuff up in front of your students. If you do you give permission for them to make mistakes and only then can they take risks.
These last two points go together. We talk about providing constructive feedback and trying to avoid the feedback sandwich (one good thing sandwiched between two criticisms). But I am not sure that I was as ready with praise for good student work as I could be. All through the week of the workshop we heard the word AWESOME (think of an enthusiastic American accent when you read this) a lot. But we also heard quite specific feedback about what we could do to slightly correct a part or fix a timing glitch in a song. One way to teach these things is to show by doing and that meant oftentimes that the band members stuffed up. These are immensely talented professional singers. If they could stuff up it gave us all a license to give things a go. Again these are things that good teachers already know. But it is easy to protect our own sense of self by seeking not to make any mistakes in front of our students. I don’t think this is good for either us or them.
Instead go back to number 1 – do whatever you can to create a sense of shared purpose and joy. If you are like me, you will find your teaching transformed!