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!

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!

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 😛

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.

I’ll See You Next Time

The majority of my adult life, in fact almost all of it, has been spent in jobs requiring evening or later hours and flexible schedules.  Between school and ensembles, it was always important to be able to shift around a work schedule.

Now I find myself in a situation with regular hours, weekends free, and I see the sun rise and set.  Perhaps it is unimportant in the grand scheme of things, however, some anxieties have been cropping up.

Every other instance of teaching experience has been short term.  Substitute teaching, even student teaching, although longer, was certainly not at this caliber.  There is a certain safety in short term, having someone else in the classroom, not being wholly responsible for the students, in knowing you can quit a part-time job when you need to, or take a longer weekend for an impromptu trip.  This has built into a reaction to drastic changes in my life.

There is a feeling of unease with my position.  We spend so much time looking forward to when we finish high school, when we finally finish an undergraduate degree, and we are bred to believe that “you’ve made it!” when we summit these peaks.  Naturally, as the dust settles, there is a bit of a let down as if someone pulled one over on you.  It is easy to feel that the journey will be done when we reach x despite knowing that it is really just another piece of the process.

Part of me has felt that instrumental music is where I truly wish to be, and I do believe it to be true, but the unease is simply because I am not comfortable or settled into this new role.  I will see the fifth graders who needed to sit out for half a class period for rude behavior, I need to learn the names of the five first grade classes, and I will have to teach in new ways I have not experienced before for this whole school year.  No turning back, no wavering in responsibility.  Growing pains seems like the best description.

So acknowledge the feelings, realize what is necessary, and push on.  I know the kind of teacher I want to be, the one these kids deserve, and I have many resources to help guide the way.  Here’s to a new week!  Let it be faster paced, have more variety in lessons, more energy, and better, more consistent management!

“Life is growth. If we stop growing, technically and spiritually, we are as good as dead.” —–Morihei Ueshiba

It’s a Craft

This week, as promised, I focused on how I use my voice in the classroom.

The first couple days I was very aware of how loud or soft I was, how often I gave instructions and the length of time it took to give explanations or instruction.  It was surprising how much more I wanted to say or how easy it is to simply try to talk over the bustle of students.  The second day was noticeably better than the first and the results were dramatic.

I begin each class by showing a video of a musical performance as they walk in.  We take a couple of minutes to discuss what they observed.  In this segment, I tried to start out by softening my voice, but still used lots of inflection and facial gestures.  I tend to speak with my hands, too.  In just about every class it made for a quick way to gather their attention.  They were actively listening.

Many times I stopped my instruction when I heard extra conversations.  I tried my best not to repeat myself, but to move on to the next part.  The most notable change happened in second grade.  We were working on a rhythm activity with manipulatives, I clapped a rhythm and they would notate it in popsicle sticks.  There were three opportunities to hear the rhythm and each time before I began, there was one notification before.  “First time,” and then there it was; “second time,” and the same for the last.  It took a couple rounds before the students really took notice and most figured out that the best way to check their answers was to tune in to my voice and shut off theirs.

As with any new position, there are pieces to learn as they occur.  Some new aspects came up and sidetracked my focus for day four, so it reminded me that teaching truly is a craft.  Every day you return to the grindstone and work.  You fine-tune the quirks and details.  When you start, the ‘details’ are much larger pieces like the lesson itself, the transitions between activities.  Relating back to practicing an instrument, after some time, smaller, more precise moments become clear and the parts we clean in practice require a subtler approach.  Teaching is a craft.  A practice that is experienced and becomes clearer with intentional work.

Continuing on, I want to make the use of my voice a constant focus.  It is a fundamental tool in management and technique, as much a part as lesson planning and assessing understanding.  The real fun is in growing, watching the students grow and knowing that your skills are growing, too!  Slowly but surely!