Today I am taking a step forward

There are people, events, memories that come up from time to time that influence us in ways we cannot anticipate.  Then again, it is up to us to be influenced and aware the impact our environment has on us.

Today I am taking a step forward.  Met a teacher who has been at this longer than I have, watched him work with a group of students and just had a great energy in everything he was doing.  Positive, passionate, patient, persistent, even in a short while really made me remember what it is I am striving to become.  How do I inspire reflection or motivation or energy in others?  Who is it that I want to be?

In his closing remarks, he stated, “If you get anything from me, I want it to be that passion and energy can do so much.”  Moving with a purpose in mind, being driven to create or refine, to solve, we need to ask ourselves what it is we are doing each day.  Envision who it is you want to be, what kind of person, and direct your day-to-day decisions toward these visions.  Reflect on the ways you accomplished a goal and how each step in the process came as a result of a purposeful thought, however minute.

Redirecting my thoughts, what kind of person do I want to be in order to become the kind of teacher I want to be?  The best teachers I know could be described as caring, persistent, lifelong learners, and genuine people.  It is a step by step process every day.  Live in the process, love the process, grow through the process.  Then take a look back every once in a while to see how far you have come.  I truly love the analogy of climbing a mountain or a long trail, not because it is ‘uphill’ or difficult as it could be, but that there are various paths to take and choices to make.  Some are switchbacks that gradually take you up, others could dip down for a short breather, and sometimes you just trudge straight up towards the false summit (because the journey does not end when we reach a goal).  On any of these trails, there are moments to look back and see what led to where we are, to appreciate the culminating impact of each small step.

Coming back to what we leave our students with, how do we pass on a concept like a love of music, perseverance and discipline, or passion in everything we do?  Teachers and administrators set the tone, yet it is up to the student to ‘buy in’ and achieve.  In pondering the many ways we create an atmosphere in our classrooms and schools, it takes me back to small steps.  A vision of students supportive of one another in a creative environment improving instrument techniques who feel confident in sharing those creations with many others.  Alright, if that is the vision, where do we begin?  I do not have a recipe, yet each decision I make will be directed by this overarching idea.

Now, to nail down my lofty philosophical babbling a bit with real-world applications.  There are certain traits that I can and will incorporate more right away in my teaching.  Early on, one of my mentors probed me about a particular student who was frustrating to work with.  She said that the students who frustrate us the most are often the students we will learn the most from, find out why they are frustrating.  We do not choose who walks into our classrooms yet we are there to teach them.  As I type, there are several kids on my mind who need something else from me in order to be successful in the environment I am establishing.  Another way to articulate this, I care about everyone who comes in and I am working to show that in what I do.  If I could really make clear one thing, it would be that the energy put towards a student signifies a belief in their potential.  I may email a parent to check on missing assignments, pull them aside during a passing period to ask how their football game went, bother the kid who is always late to change when they go to their locker, arrange a song for the group to play because some of them have been learning it by ear.  Teachers go out of their way for their students all the time, striving to lead students to their potential.  However, at the end of the day, it is up to the student to absorb and use the information or concepts we present.  We will still do our best to show them how.

Long post short, today I am taking a step forward.  Every step leads somewhere, hopefully the ones today are taking me towards that image I’m aiming for, it feels like a good philosophy for now.


Influence Does Not Appear Overnight

There is an article out about the mistakes new teachers make.  Read through it last night and I am totally with the author, I’ve made almost every one of them!  And I am glad!

Life is all about process, music has certainly shown me that, and teaching is similar.  Each day is a new opportunity, a new performance, a new coaching gig where the players can be predictable, but often are not.  Building off of what they know and leading them, sometimes it feels like pushing them, into new territory.  Love the process, live in the process, and slowly, the effects will start to show.

My biggest mistakes (so far):

Writing incredibly detailed lesson plans.  This, fortunately, did not last long, and really it cannot.  Depending on what you are teaching, one college-length lesson plan for each day and class is so time-consuming.  That is not to say planning is not important, far from it, they are just far more concise plans.  It was wonderful that my college professors encouraged us to plan out what to say and how to say it, because it is very important when keeping pacing and interest up.  Though after the first month or so, there may be a phrase to stick into the plan and remember, or a short list of points to address, not a screen play.

On the flip side, going to clinics and other professional development opportunities is very helpful when picking up good phrases to use with students.  (A great book to read on the subject is Choice Words by Peter H. Johnston.)  One of my favorites now is when addressing music students missing rests or notes, I ask for a show of hands of who missed it.  Then, when they think they are in trouble, I encouragingly say, “Great!  You heard what happened, so you know how to fix it!” or “Good listening!  Can we try it correctly?”  Mistakes happen, it does us no good to fall away from them feeling awful or wanting to quit.

Never leaving school.  I am still guilty of this and my colleagues have been commenting.  It is difficult to begin sorting through resources, finding resources, deciding what might work, and how to put it all together in a meaningful way.  It does take time, but we also need to live and prioritize.  A fifth grade teacher applauded when she saw me walking out the door at 4:30 yesterday afternoon, I am typically one of the last to leave.  However!  I have learned to limit the amount of time I am working after school.  I will stick around until 4:30-5:00 and then anything after that is practice time.  My music room is a fantastic space to play euphonium; plus, it is wonderfully cathartic.

It’s not a tuba!

Trying to re-invent the wheel.  Entering into the field, particularly after living in the ideal mindset of the college experience, we want to change the world!  Should we do things differently?  Yes.  Do we need to create lessons from scratch every single time?  Absolutely not.  The best thing about finding resources, they are tools.  Tools we can adjust to suit our purpose without developing the whole process ourselves.  How do we become great teachers?  Imitate great teachers and use the supplies they readily hand us.

Now, my successes (so far as I can tell):

There is routine, but also lots of variety.  Although I consider this a bit back-handed since I know I will change the order and how I taught a number of things in the beginning of the year, it is still a success.  I set up many clear routines and procedures that students now do without question.  They know where to go when entering my classroom and what happens if they are or not focused.  When I say certain phrases, everyone understands the expectations and what will happen if they do not meet them.

Where I missed a few spots, a procedure for asking to use the bathroom and consistently letting students know where their overall behavior stands during class.  The classroom teachers have their own bathroom signals I thought I could just work with, and that is okay with kindergarten, but for the other 450, they each seem to have a different signal.  I have a five-star system where they can earn up to five stars in a class.  It was going great until I started focusing on some other aspects and would neglect to build up those stars as a visual.  We’ll fix this next week, but it will not be engrained until late in the school year.  It takes time.

They know me and my classroom as a safe place.  If nothing else went well all year, I would still be doing cartwheels about this success.  The most important and effective management tool, is a safe environment.  Not only management, but it helps when getting to know students.  One of my favorite things is hearing stories about non-school related activities.  When they just start talking, I know that we have a connection and we can work together.  It is more apparent in the upper grades where they are not as trusting.  Although, it is awesome to have a cafeteria full of kindergarteners trying to run up and give you hugs while grabbing lunch.

Looking forward to the rest of the school year.  There will be some rough moments, and each group can be different day-to-day, but having a little more solid footing is helping.  It also helps having more of a life outside of school.

Onwards and upwards!

Reality Sets In

The last couple months have been less than a positive experience, very eye-opening, however. Looking back I can pick out good things, but in the midst it is easy to be sucked in by negativity.

Often to be disappointed in lack of forethought with a lesson that then did not work well, I was upset with classroom management issues, and found myself dreading going to work. How can that be! Working so hard for years to make a dream a reality and then like a veil being lifted, nothing is as you imagined. Being caught up in those ideals, however farfetched they are, sets us up for a rude awakening. Of course, it does not seem to matter how much you tell yourself it is nonsense or illogical, emotion is what it is. If you find yourself angry hours later because a ten year old said something rude, you might be a teacher (or a parent).

So let’s talk reality. Public education in America is messy. Twists and turns, administration and administration and administration for their administration; paper trails and money trails you never see; testing upon testing to gather data that may not tell much, if anything of how to improve. Frankly, and I have said this many times, the majority of people in this country have no idea what is going on in education. The small window allotted for us as students is barely a hint of the real labyrinth.

In our current situation, the biggest pressure is in testing and data. Data is simple, it shows specific values that we can see and understand. If a school or teacher is not producing adequate results, then the answer must be obvious, right? If the answer is that it is the school’s and teacher’s responsibility to make students remember information for a test, then sure. But where is the student’s responsibility in taking charge of that information, in learning, in working for themselves? That is unmeasurable data and therefore, is left out of the equation. How much time do we have invested in taking “standardized” tests to give us data instead of supporting teachers who can show their own? It is not just the day or weeks of the test.

It would seem that we are left in a strange place; a misty mountain. At the summit are administrators of school districts, state officials, companies developing tests, and the multitude of people who work in and around schools for research. In the valley, there are the students we herd from here to there; take a test here, move to another school for behavior or other assistance there. Then there are the teachers, climbing around the steep mountain in the fog, working with the other teachers around them when they can, trying to lead students to new skills, encourage practice, and manage twenty-plus at once. All the while, administrators take a helicopter to drop in and put a spotlight on fifteen minutes of one class period in two weeks. Then the students are tested and the teachers are evaluated based on that data. Teachers are set up to take the fall, and isn’t it easy to blame the ones we do not know or see?

My two cents on data: Collecting data in class is a valuable tool, it lets you know who understands and who needs more practice. It is still just a tool. It can shed light on what needs improvement, but it does not solve the problem.

With as messy as our system is, it is heartening to meet and work with many awesome teachers and administrators. I am fortunate to have a wonderful administration team in my building. Three people who value our time and do their best to support and help out where they can. What strikes me is how much they all care, the teachers and the administrators in the schools. Putting the education of hundreds of students in the hands of these folks is a great decision that anyone could see if they spent a little time talking to them or their students. It is a shame to think about these people hearing all the blame and pressure from a society that needs to see more of the picture than what is seen on the news.

One last thought. With “teacher effectiveness” rolling out, pay-by-performance already implemented in several places, it is amazing how little say the teachers have. The person spending fifty+ hours a week working and numerous hours thinking, planning, studying how to develop young minds, the one who stays up late worrying about how to reach Emma and Jayden, the one who uses their own paycheck to buy things for the classroom because it is easier than jumping through administrative loops or they do not have a budget, the one who brings in extra coats for students that need them, or any extra thing (A hint, it’s not just one or two teachers in a district, these are the type of people who go into teaching.) They have little control over how they are evaluated.

Could the students teach themselves today?

Great Expectations

When teaching a new skill, a new concept, anything, we do not expect the student to understand right away.  Often we do not expect perfection on even the tenth time through.  And yet I found myself this week, frustrated at how many areas of teaching I need to improve.

Discussing this frustration, with an impending test that can impact my pay scale, it was brought up that I would never expect my students to have it right the very first time through.  Why do I expect anything different from my first year?  Putting the experience so far in perspective, I have not taught through November, through Thanksgiving or other holidays, have not seen what happens after winter break.  This is all new territory.  As much as I have been learning and growing over the last three months, I do not have the experience with kids during other seasons, weather patterns, holidays, etc.  No one expects that I will be perfect (far from it) in the first year, I need to give myself a little breathing room to enjoy everything that is coming.

It is difficult to remember not to beat yourself up at times.  (Do those years of college and long discussions, ideas about education not count for any experience?)  That moment of realization too late to change what was just said, fixing the lesson that just happened, reflecting on that discussion in a college course about something really important you just missed.  After three months in other jobs, I had the system worked out, a few questions here and there.  Not so with teaching.  The most difficult is wondering whether or not I said the right thing in moments when students come to you to talk.  Bullying on the playground, frustration over a game of four square, having a rough day because grandma passed away, or any number of other variables in life.  I hope to be a positive influence and take these moments seriously.  We must remember it is always up to the individual what they choose to take from what others say.

The last part is time and energy.  Monday through Friday I am at school from 6:30am until usually 5:30-6:00pm.  Prepping, writing and reworking lessons, adding music terms to my walls, keeping track of band attendance, finding music to sing, listen to, play instruments with, and I could keep listing the massive variety of tasks.  Nearly twelve hours and when I am home, there is not much energy left to focus on anything besides some shows on Netflix.  I still think about school, in fact most nights I’ll wake up around two or three with thoughts running through about the next day.  I catch myself being bummed about not taking that down time and turning it into more work time.  Why should I have a life, I have students that need to learn!

A little perspective to keep me sane.  We are not infallible.  Humans need to recharge and cannot work nonstop forever.  Be positive about all the new experiences as they unfold and take time to appreciate the growth.  Allow time to be the student, learn and keep trying until it is right.  Then be flexible to make it work for whoever you have in front of you!

What is the goal?

A third grader had a meltdown in one of my classes this week.  I looked over while everyone was working quietly in groups to see her crying in a corner, then was immediately notified by about four others that “She’s crying!”

There are so many pieces in the teacher’s job description.  Kids are developing, they have lives that impact what happens while they are in school.  We push and push to have data to show what they are learning, how much progress they have made in math or reading, awards for doing the best on tests, and test and test and test.  When are we giving them time to be kids?  What is the goal for teachers?  Administration?  A school district?

After sending the ‘reporters’ back to work, I went over and asked what was wrong.  No response.  I prodded again and said it would be okay to sit out, breathe, and collect herself.  Then the story came flooding out.  I was not able to make out every piece, but the gist was that her mom was just deployed somewhere else and a few of her friends were poking fun at her while she was already feeling bad about that.  Gave her a hug, told her it was okay to feel bad, let her know she could sit for a bit if she wanted, but she hopped right back in with her group and participated the rest of class.

As we grow into adulthood, a big realization is that we are all simply wandering, trying to understand and find our place in the world.  Just like developing young minds, we have a regular struggle in determining who we are, what we intend, and then, in turn, what we decide to do in varying circumstances.  So sitting in class, doling out lessons that are hopefully engaging and meaningful, when a student is having a difficult time, I have a split second to decide a course of action.  I have to remember my goal.

A little later in the day I stopped by the counselor’s office to talk about what happened with the third grader.  I asked if she had been in to see either the military counselor or the regular counselor.  Nope.  Apparently she seemed just fine at recess, too.  The next day, when I was out for recess duty, she came up and hugged me while talking about some silly game she was playing with her friends.  She was there and then gone in a moment to go play.  Maybe all she needed was someone to listen, or a place to talk.  In any case, I feel I met my goal that day.

How do you measure the impact of moments like these?  Where is the data on emotional development?  It has been nearly three months since I started this position and already I can count numerous moments like this.  My fear is that collectively, we are turning the students, the people involved in education into numbers and statistics.  Who has the most teacher turnover, what school has the highest math scores, give more money to the schools doing well on the next big test.  Yes, statistics can tell us many things, but those numbers cannot show the people involved, whether or not a student had breakfast that day, if a parent went to jail, if the teacher used the same language as a test to teach a concept, and often whether or not a student can actually perform the skill they are answering a multiple choice question about.

What do we miss when the focus is on numbers and results?  Is the goal to build citizens or scores?  One will eventually beget the other, but not the other way around.

Nurture is All Around

Standing outside with a little stop sign in front of the school twice a week, I keep the traffic from running down our young students using the crosswalk.  Inevitably though, during my twenty minute extra job, there are vehicles parked in areas not designated as parking spaces.  We have a drop off area, a bus area, and a fairly large parking lot that fills for big events, but never the morning routine.  Despite this thought out design, parents continue to park on those dashed areas between handicap spaces and at the end of the rows of spaces, blocking an area often used to walk safely over to the crosswalk.  After several conversations, I have resorted to placing cones in two of the closer areas so students and parents can walk to the crosswalk without venturing into traffic.

I see your goal is to be known as “that guy.”

These moments bring to mind a clear thought.  The social experiment, the nurturing experience that is the education system does not end at the students or the buildings.  The phrase “It takes a village” speaks volumes to the impact an environment has on the development of our next generations.  Those parents ignoring basic rules to keep us safe and the actions taken by other individuals while kids observe affects their perception of the world.  The teacher who sends a student to the office for continuous disruptive behavior only to have their decision second-guessed or reversed has an influence.  Children staying up late at night or watching shows and games with ideas they could easily misunderstand, has an affect.  Schools disintegrating programs for creative pursuits in favor of more math or reading classes to deal with pressure to perform on tests that will determine their funding.  The factors add up, positive or negative, they add up.  Then what about the high school who has the largest football program that supports its members playing in the marching band?  Or schools like Montessori that encourage exploration as an essential skill, what impact do they have?  KIPP charter schools, an inner city effort set up like a boarding school.  Parents who actively push their children to complete assignments and support the efforts of the teacher.  In the end, we are molded by our experiences, good or bad.  The biggest skill we can learn is to be aware that our actions impact the world, however small.  Our actions can change the world.

As a student, as a parent, or as one of the few working in a school, we have been molded by our experiences amidst the education system.  With either immense frustration or fond memories, or daily stories of student activity, we talk and talk about education.  Since our primary experience with education is as a student, there are so many sides of the issue that are simply lost having not been exposed.  Teachers and anyone working directly with students are at the forefront.

Averaging around a 23:1 student to teacher ratio at my school, it is far different from what one would anticipate.  Each student is tracked regularly for performance in specific areas while trying to attain the data to attract grants, recognition, and “better” students and teachers.  It is a funny process rarely recognized for the complexities and variables but is quickly criticized for anyone slipping through.  True, it is difficult to objectively measure effectiveness without some statistical data, however, I do question the push for more means of proving knowledge while taking away time for instruction.  Flipping the focus of education from students to numbers.  What is the impact of that?

What of those “elective” courses like art, P.E., music, woodworking, cooking, sewing?  What skills are we missing by pushing these experiences aside?  In public elementary schools, there are usually just a few that students are rotated through; art, P.E., music, and library.  So in essence, each of those teachers are expected to work with and individually track every student of every grade level in the school.  That includes for me, preparing two hundred of them for an exam that will determine my pay grade within an instruction window of 45 minutes once a week, occasionally twice.  Hmm, I wonder how effective that is, yet that is the expectation and becoming the norm.  Five hundred fifty students to one teacher.

Perhaps this seems a lengthy complaint.  Not so.  I really do enjoy seeing the variety of development stages, working to meet those needs.  It is a unique experience and a position with a great deal of responsibility.  I aim to fill each of those 45 minutes with as much as I can.  This is more a public statement to shed light on a bit of those inner workings we were never truly aware of as a student or often as a parent.  A little empathy can go a long way to understanding the next step toward the effective, positive education of our youth.

Choose the impact you want to make in the world because you have an influence in the lives of others.  And maybe stop parking in places that impede those around you 😛

I Can Do That!

The weeks pass by and I feel more tired at the end of each. The biggest drain is simply trying to provide the energy level the kids need to be engaged. They are curious and excited, bottles bursting with emotions they may not understand and cannot always control.

My favorite part of class is at the beginning (unless we have to keep practicing sitting quietly). We listen to different varieties of music with a video performance and we discuss features of the music. First graders to fifth graders all have something to say about what they are listening to. Each day I am surprised by some of the responses. “This made me miss my uncle who just passed away.” “This is like Tarzan with lots of drums in the jungle!” “There were lots of forte and piano sections.” The kids want to be heard and as we learn more musical terms, I hope they will recognize more of those traits along with the more personal connections.

A moment that sticks out to me from this week came yesterday and has actually happened several times now. During a discussion about the music we were listening to, a student said “I can do that!” The initial response from other students and even myself was, “No, I don’t think so.” It is disappointing I let it go in that direction.

What if instead of saying, “No, you can’t,” we responded with, “Sure you can, I’ll show you how to get there!” The tone we interpret as egotistic or unappreciative to the time it takes is really just an interest in doing the same thing. We play some percussion instruments in music class. When we are watching a percussion ensemble a student recognizes that they are already working on those basic skills, it is terrific to hear that they may want to continue learning.

“Music is the art of thinking with sounds.” —– Jules Combarieu

The next step in this process is in planning. What can I do to provide more opportunities to practice those skills? More recorders? Other instruments and singing? So far the routine for my lessons has helped to create a good template to work with, but there is only so much time. I keep coming back to time and energy. Students need time to explore and practice to feel successful, multiple chances to try, and more than a couple ways to explain the information for it to really sink in. I have forty-five minutes every fourth school day with each group. It makes the process take longer, not to mention management. There is also the curriculum dictated by the district the kids will be tested on in a purely written setting.

Music, like many subjects, is a practice. The more often and with regularity we are using the information and skills, the better we can be. Besides the obvious benefits and engrossing parts of learning musical skills, music is flush with information and practice in other subject areas. Reading, writing, literature, math, science, history, politics, sociology, are all aspects we can discuss and work with. And yet we push for more math worksheets, spelling tests, and tests. In any case, this is not a blog griping about the system, but it can be frustrating to not have many options or time to provide students who are interested, wanting to know more about what is happening in your class.

So yes, of course they can do whatever it is they put their mind to! We do what we can and hope to have the energy and resources to make it worthwhile during the limited time we have in music class. It helps when every kid in the school knows who you are and waves/hugs/says hi whenever you are around. That has to be the best part so far.