Teaching and Trust – Creativity and Learning Throughout Life

By Kathy Cunningham, March, 2010

My philosophy of teaching was really formed by experiences in college. 

My initial degree was in Music Education and Music Therapy; then came a Master of Pastoral Studies, and finally a BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

While studying music, I would always come well-prepared for each lesson.  At my final lessons (in different terms), when they knew I would no longer be their student, both my bassoon teacher and my percussion teacher told me the same thing:  they had routinely given me TWICE what they thought I was capable of!  No matter, I BELIEVED that they thought I could do it.  It wasn’t that they simply set expectations, but I felt they believed in me.  What a valuable lesson that was! 

Teachers can be powerful motivators, but that power can also be destructive.  Whatever beliefs we project onto our students can limit their progress or help them break through barriers and reach goals.

Another experience which helped form my development was working with handicapped children.  One day when working with a group that was hearing-impaired, I brought in some drum sticks and practice pads.  About a week later, I received a call from one of the parents asking if I would give their son “Robbie” private lessons.  He wanted to be in the school band when he got to junior high, and they didn't believe in denying him anything because of his handicap.

I was hesitant because music is a difficult discipline, and I didn’t want “Robbie” to have a bad experience.  He was completely deaf in one ear and had an 80 decibel loss in the other.  I told the parents that if they would sit in on his lessons and drill him an hour a day, I would teach him.  And they agreed.  They drilled “Robbie” for an hour, and he would practice another hour because he was so motivated.

Since music is an abstract form and these children learn visually, it presented special challenges.  I had to learn how to get complicated rhythms and rudiments across.  I started tapping things out on his shoulders so he could feel it in his body.

After 2 years of working with “Robbie”, it was time for him to go to junior high, and I was taking a teaching job in a town about 3 hours away.  I was very nervous for him.  Fortunately, the new band director at the school was also one of my music therapy colleagues, and our drummer had a wonderful year.

The following summer, I came back and “Robbie” took lessons with me again.  Besides the percussion, he also wanted to learn to play the guitar.  He would play and sing with all his heart.  I remember watching him and thinking that if someone listened, they would probably think it was just awful.  But I knew that this was real music to God’s ear because it came from deep within his soul.

For several years I worked with children who had all types of physical and mental limitations.  I would come prepared with a lesson plan, but if it wasn’t working, I had to abandon it and try something else.  It taught me to be flexible and spontaneous in my teaching, and I soon discovered that what I had learned in music could be directly applied to visual arts as well.

By now I have taught people aged 3 to 99 ½ , and I think there are more similarities than differences among them.  Everyone wants to feel good about what they are doing.  They want to feel that the teacher cares about them, and they want to be confident in the skills they are building. 

One summer I had a five-year old in my clay class.  “Emily” was particularly good for that age with both her handbuilding and painting.  After taking great care with her work, I told her she needed to put glaze on the piece in order to finish it.  She was shocked, and didn’t want to put “that pink stuff” on.  When I started to demonstrate, she burst into tears because she was sure that I had ruined her piece!  I assured her that it would be all right, and she would see that her piece was really beautiful after it was fired in the kiln.  In a very soothing a tone, I told her, "Just trust me."  Needless to say, everything turned out just fine, and she was delighted.

On the first day of each camp, I go around the room and have the children introduce themselves and tell me one thing they would really like to learn or create.  Then I try to work these specific items into my lessons.  I had “Emily” four summers in a row, and each time she would declare, “And just when you think Miss Kathy is going to ruin your piece, it will be okay.  Just trust her!”

I relate that incident to my elderly students at different retirement centers where I teach.  The story makes them laugh, and then when someone starts resisting one of my suggestions, all the others chime in, “Just trust her!”

Something else which is important to my teaching is the pastoral element.  It is necessary to be fully engaged in the moment, and to direct energies “with” them rather than “at” them.  It goes beyond just making a pretty object; it requires taking the time to find the students’ creativity and passion, and assisting them to become the artists they are meant to be – not simply carbon copies of their teacher. 

Depending on the circumstance, even the specific project is not so important.  At a nursing home, one of the residents thanked me for looking her in the eye when I talked.  She said that no one else ever really “saw” her.  To be fully present takes a conscious effort.  Like small children, the oldsters see through the façade and know whether you are being genuine or not. 

I count myself lucky to have taught such a wide range of ages and abilities.  I have gained much and feel that I’m a better person - and a much more complete artist - because of those experiences.  When done well, teaching is a profession that can touch us all in a profound way. 

Just trust me! 

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March 20, 2010

© 2010 Kathy Cunningham

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Kathy Cunningham is an artist and teacher living in Chicago


To see some photos of the artwork created by Kathy's students (both young and old), CLICK HERE