Sometimes people ask me what I do for a living and I tell them, and then they say, "That's so cute!" My very youngest students are cute . . . adorable, even! But my job is not cute. This year I'm thinking about all of my fellow elementary school music teachers, especially those going into the first year of a brand new career, and I'm remembering some bits of wisdom and truth I've received from mentors along the way. These are things that protect me from the sense of invisibility and unimportance that can come from our culture's inability to understand the worth of a music specialist's role in the educational system - particularly the foundational work done by elementary school music teachers.
So, from my classroom to yours, here are some facts to remember as you go into the 2017-18 school year.
1. You are the music specialist in your building. Trust yourself.
That's right, you. You are the music teacher. Depending on the ever swinging "pendulum" and a whole host of other circumstances, you might feel greatly supported in your work or not. Music is such a universal human experience - sometimes its universal nature seems to beg people to share endless opinions with you about things that ought to be going on in your classroom (sometimes, blessedly . . . not!). When it does seem like too many opinions are flying at you from too many directions try to stop and remember: You are the music specialist in your classroom. You have wrestled with the pedagogy. You are a well of facts and experiences for your students. You understand how to do detailed research about your subject area. Trust yourself even when it feels like the entire educational system doesn't totally trust you. Don't worry, friends - that pendulum always swings back, and if we're very lucky it will even pause in the middle for a moment.
2. Your personal musicianship is extremely important in the lives of your students - being a teacher does NOT require you to stop performing or studying your primary instrument. Go after it! Find opportunities! Stay creative, friends.
"Those who can't do . . ." Let's get something straight. You're teaching because you're a gifted musician AND teacher. Music literacy is such an abstract thing in the beginning. It's a language and an alphabet and a behavior. Silence the voices telling you it's only made of math! Music is made of meaning, like everything else of worth in this human life. It's a web of concepts that connect to form thoughts and skills - it is philosophical and experiential . . . and you are the brave soul working to make the connection clear to your students. Your ongoing study and practice of musical skills will positively impact your teaching and your students. You need a musical outlet (or seven) for YOURSELF. Your students need you to pursue the love of the instrument that brought you to the classroom. You don't have to give recitals if you don't want to, but don't stop your creative pursuits. Investing in your own musical growth can only help your students, your teaching, and your community.
3. You teach a life skill, not an "extra" or a "secondary subject."
There's not much to explain here, right? I don't care what we call P.E., music, computer science, art, guidance, and languages - special areas, special subjects, extras, ext. - they are all vitally important life skills related to citizenship and humanity. Music is a human behavior. It is an art not only reserved for experts. It is for everyone. The skills you teach your very youngest students will grow into part of the arsenal of tools they'll use to survive as human beings. Music will assist them with their emotional development. Music will help them to become integrated into healthy community groups. Music making will exalt their spirits because it's part of being human. On top of all this (as if it's not enough) your students will grow up to see that music is integral to cultural preservation, transmission, and evolution. Art has always been within us. Art will always be a part of us. You are helping your students to do an art that is born from the very depths of who they are. Music is poignant for everybody - perhaps especially the very young.
4. Self care is vital. Boundaries are a good thing.
Educational culture is different everywhere. Some school systems and individual buildings value self care more than others. I've experienced various things and heard all sorts of stories during my years teaching. I've observed some really wonderful trends in the workplace and some not so great trends, too. One of my favorite colleagues likes to say, "I teach to live. I don't live to teach." and I know you might read that and think, "But my teaching IS my calling! I do live to teach!" I get it. Believe me. It's my calling. I've forsaken countless other possibilities to be in my classroom. But I can't be in my classroom if I'm not well. You must take care of your body, your spirit, and your family. You need to make time for rest. You need to make time for exercise, meals that tell your body good things, and space to be with the people who understand you. If you aren't whole your classroom won't be whole. So, find a way to turn the work notifications off at a certain time each day. Find a way to say a few positive things on your lunch break - even on the bad days. And go outside for a walk whenever you can. A few simple self care practices will go a long way. Your students will notice.
5. Your work is the cornerstone. The foundation. The beginning of everything that will come next.
You get to open the door to future musicianship for your students. You teach the youngest. I think that's much harder than teaching the older ones. If you're an able conductor (and I was/am) you can figure out how to build up and sustain a performance oriented program with older students - especially if the community around you enjoys public performance. But to work in an elementary school is to start from nothing. You build the joy of music making in your students. You ignite the sense of curiosity that will send them on into a future of private lessons and individual study. You help connect the dots of meaning from one new thought to the next . . . there's nothing easy about any of it! You're working very hard. And your work is necessary. Sometimes you need to stop and remind yourself: I do an important and difficult job that requires skill, artistry, and wisdom. That's not an exaggeration. It might even be an understatement.
Finally, let me leave you with a little story. I will carry this story into my new school year and it will help me, yet again, to avoid comparing myself to people who do other jobs . . . jobs that seem "more important."
I was downtown playing a gig in a new venue. A bunch of young twenty-somethings came in and sat down near me. On my break I walked away from the keyboard and introduced myself to them.
One of these young college girls said, "What do you do for a living?"
I said, "I'm an elementary school music teacher in a public school."
She got teary eyed and said, "Gosh. I loved my elementary school music teacher. She was the only one who told me I could do anything right."
I got teary eyed, too, because while I had some lovely elementary school classroom teachers I also had several rough years with low academic achievement . . . and my music teacher stuck with me and would not give up. She encouraged me when everybody else was saying, "Why can't you be more like ________?"
I wiped tears out of my eyes and replied to this girl, "I loved mine, too. She was the best. I hope I'm half as kind as she is!"
Friends, you are teaching a subject that opens a door to the heart of who your students are and who they might become someday. What a challenge and privilege it is. Someday one of your students will walk into your classroom and will feel like everybody else is against them . . . and your subject matter will make sense, and your face will light up for them, and you will encourage them.
That weird kid with ADD? The one that has trouble making friends?
She might grow up to be just like you someday because you opened doors for her. Because you saw her. Because you rooted for her.