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.

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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.

Always More to Do

Every time I think about teaching as a job, it just seems like there needs to be a better word for what teachers do each day.  The time and energy it takes to simply keep a group of children occupied, let alone finding ways to present new information and experiences that will encourage learning is intensive to say the least.  I go home each evening, exhausted, but fascinated.

A never-ending supply of variables present themselves through any moment of the day.  If a group enters noisily, and I do not correct it, the entire class period is affected.  Every group reacts to lessons a bit differently, some may need more or less instruction in a variety of ways.  Kids coming from broken homes act out or attach themselves to you or completely shut down.  The kids who just need someone to let them speak, the ones who hide behind others and will not talk at all.  Some who become overwhelmed and need a space to collect themselves.  Sometimes it is heartwarming, other times heartbreaking.  But there is a distinct pressure to make the most of the time.

The first year, so far putting together lessons takes up the most time.  Working in a new area, with new students, with resources chosen by someone else, developing a curriculum to fit a district model; it is certainly a process.  The best part is when a lesson comes together well and the students really take something from it.  But even the best lesson that went off without a hitch one day, could be completely off the mark for the next group.  I try different approaches, talk to other teachers, observe their classes, trying to gauge how to go about the next time all the while thinking that there is not enough.

The more I talk with other educators, the more ideas and tools I receive.  Every day I add a new element to keep things moving, to engage the students, to hopefully make them think and spur some curiosity.  What I really am looking for is to make sure they all feel welcome and encouraged to do more than what they would otherwise know how to do.  Not there yet by any means, but I’ll be working on it.  There is a certain frustration in knowing that I am not the teacher I want to be.  Just need to remember that it is about the journey, there really is no set destination.  Maybe I need a few years here.

On to the next week, there is plenty of work to be done.  Definitely grateful to have a supportive school community to work in and help develop.