I know it when I see it: disposition and its importance to the choral director

by Terence Jonathan Madlangbayan, Student Representative to ORACDA Board

“How do you measure good teaching?” This was the question Dr. Jason Gossett posed to my “Theorizing Field Experiences” class during our last meeting a few weeks ago. Simple, right? In reality, it sparked a lively debate that lasted for the entire class period and more.

My classmates and I came up with many ways to try to measure good teaching, listing methods such as music theory assessments, individual and group singing assessments, achievement of previously set goals, student participation, contest and festival scores, classroom behavior, year-to-year retention rates, and others as potential quantifiers.

Dr. Gossett countered us at every turn, frustratingly responding to most of our answers with, “Sure, that measures student learning/engagement, but does it really measure good teaching?” It’s true; all of our answers measured student progress, but none of them really measured the quality of the teaching itself. Student progress can be an indicator of good teaching, but it can also just as easily (though maybe not as likely) be evidence of students getting better by going home and working on things by themselves. So how do you measure good teaching? Easy: you can’t, at least not definitively. As we learned at the end of class, good teaching is impossible to fully measure because of a little thing called disposition.

So what is disposition? The National Council for Accreditation in Teacher Education uses the following definition:

The values, commitments, and professional ethics that influence behaviors toward students, families, colleagues, and communities and affect student learning, motivation and development as well as the educator’s own professional growth. Dispositions are guided by beliefs and attitudes related to values such as caring, fairness, honesty, responsibility and social justice. For example, they might include a belief that all students can learn, a vision of high and challenging standards, or a commitment to a safe and supportive learning environment.

Basically, disposition encompasses all of the stuff that makes you you that isn’t related to skills or content knowledge. Obviously, it’s impossible to put a concrete number on attitudes and values, so how can they be measured? Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart probably put it best in his written opinion of Jacobellis v. Ohio in regards to pornography (emphasis mine): “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.” Just as obscenity in film is difficult to definitively measure, so too is disposition. However, just as Justice Stewart demonstrated with his “I know it when I see it” statement, both can still be measured, albeit broadly.

Now, why is this important? Think back to your teachers. Do you remember exactly which teachers taught you which specific concepts? Some, probably, but for the most part, probably not. However, you can probably remember how certain teachers made you feel. You remember certain teachers as being nice, strict, ambivalent, mean, excitable, funny, or other kinds of “feeling” words. Such is the impact of our dispositions.

Maya Angelou is quoted as saying, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel,” and she is absolutely correct. Our attitudes and how we convey them to our singers impacts them more and sticks longer with them than any lesson on the Baroque treatment of melismatic passages (always break after the tie!). This isn’t to say that skills and knowledge aren’t important, because they absolutely are. But just as we strive to expand and refine our musical knowledge and choral technique, we should also strive to be conscious of our dispositions and work on improving them to best meet our goals for our ensembles.

Choral directors play many roles for the singers in our ensembles. We act as teacher, mentor, therapist, guide, and of course, musical leader. Ideally, we also act as facilitator, working to build our singers’ individual musicianship enough to “make ourselves obsolete,” as many directors have put it. To do so requires us to impart musical knowledge and skills to our singers, as well as to inspire and motivate them to take ownership of their ensemble. What does being inspiring and motivating look like? I can’t quite say, but I know it when I see it.