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Thanks to Bob Brewer for allowing me to share his February 15, 2018 post. I knew Bob as an excellent tuba player and musician. He has had a distinguished performance and teaching career.
I used many stories of my past teaching experiences in my methods classes as a professor preparing band directors but I don’t think I ever shared this one. I was teaching Junior High Band in an Ozark mountain town. Tommy, not his real name, was a drummer who was not much different to me than most drummers other than he was bigger than most of the other kids in 9th grade. He liked playing well, was funny, obviously liked to have a good time, got into a little mischief if not kept busy but when provoked he had a dark side. If a disagreement came up Tommy took it as a personal challenge which could escalate to a fist fight. But if I kept the section busy and light-hearted, things rocked along just fine.
Tommy was described by his other teachers with words like incorrigible, violent, explosive, even dangerous. I never met his parents and knew nothing first hand about his home life, only unsubstantiated stories told to me by the other teachers and a few of his friends. I liked Tommy and got along with him well but even so, I sort of kept an eye out for trouble.
We were loading buses on a Saturday morning for marching contest and it had already been a trying morning. The equipment van was late causing the load up to be disorganized, the high school band was loading up around the corner waiting on us and there was the normal “mad dash” for the best seats at the back of the bus when a shouting match erupted on one of the buses.
I was first approached by Tommy’s girlfriend who was pleading with me to help Tommy. “He just blew up over nothing and it’s really not that big of a deal. I don’t know how to help him.” I could see in her face she was really scared. Then came Tommy. He was red-faced mad and shaking; stomping as he approached and blathering something about not being respected.
So there we stood, toe to toe, both of us red-faced mad and shaking all over. To this day I don’t know where the words came from. “Tommy,” I said, “Life doesn’t always have to be this way. You cannot demand respect from others, you have to earn it. If you will just pay attention and LISTEN to me, I will teach you how to do that!” There was a long pause while we both stood there shaking. Then I was surprised to see Tommy’s eyes water, he reached out and hugged me. I hugged him back and held on as his anger came out in sobs. I looked at his girlfriend who was also crying through a smile as she mouthed to me, “Thank you”. It was actually over in seconds.
Tommy was the most helpful student on that trip and I never had another moments trouble with him all year. I left after that year for graduate school and have always wondered what happened to Tommy. Did he find another mentor? Did he learn about respect? Did he graduate? I hope I find out someday. I’d like to hug him again.
The most important aspect of teaching is love. We forget about love because we are so wrapped up in the “stuff” of today’s education: standards, curriculum, assessments, team meetings, classroom walk-throughs, TESS and a million other things that take up our time and cloud our vision.
Love your students as individuals, love music and show that love every day in your own life. And they will learn by your example.
I thought of this song today while doing classroom walkthroughs and thinking back on several of the wonderful classroom observations I’ve done over the last few months. I feel a sense of great thankfulness when seeing good teaching.
A masterful teacher rises to the level of sainthood described here in Carrie Newcomer’s song, “The Work of Our Hands.” People who are fully alive display a commitment to doing good work, whether canning tomatoes, laying bricks, or building young lives. Doing the best we can do with the task set before us is a high calling and one we must answer as educators.
The worst school year ever! That’s how I remember my last year in elementary school. I spent a large amount of time digging ruts in the pencil holder of my desk. I learned that by sharpening my pencil and applying just the right amount of pressure, I could make a rut deeper without breaking the point. I was experiencing a caustic classroom environment and a burned out teacher. I’ll call her Ms. S.
I stayed out of Ms. S’s line of sight as much as possible but a classmate named Ricky didn’t have that luxury. He was a tall, lanky, good-looking kid. He was outgoing, verbally clever, and an artist. None of these qualities were valued in this classroom and he quickly became the teacher’s “whipping boy.” If a rule was violated or there was a disruption, it was assumed that Ricky had a part in it.
There is one person I have no memory of from that year…the principal. I never saw the principal in our classroom. I can’t remember who the principal was or what she looked like. I wonder if she had any idea of how we were suffering. If so, was she afraid to confront bad practices or overwhelmed with other duties? Did she hope to address instructional issues when she found the time?
How might Ricky’s life have been different if his artistic abilities had been valued and his verbal cleverness developed? He might have been the team member everyone wanted as we did collaborative projects but he had little value when it came to completing mind-numbing worksheets. In his early 30s, Ricky died of a lethal combination of drugs and alcohol. I’m not saying that his year with Ms. S was the reason for this but I do know that caring teachers can change the trajectory of a child’s life.
If she were still alive, Ms. S might be surprised to hear that I learned several lessons from her that impact my professional practice today. I learned that teachers have the most powerful influence (positive or negative) on student learning. I learned how important it is to visit classrooms and assess the culture and quality of interactions between teachers and students. I learned that it’s crucial to let students, teachers, and parents know my beliefs about teaching and learning. I also learned to watch for students like Ricky to see if their talents are valued and allowed to flourish.
A few months ago I was going through some old photographs at my parents’ home and came across the class photo from that year. I was shocked at the appearance of Ms. S. I remembered her as being ugly but she was actually very attractive. We were all sitting at our desks with artificial smiles pasted across our faces. I wondered how our lives might have been improved if the principal had been in the classroom often? How might Ms. S’s life improved if she had been challenged to do better and involved in professional learning with other teachers? It was a sad year in terms of learning and building relationships. More tragic is the collective impact of the many years that these bad practices were allowed to continue?
Thankfully teachers like Ms. S are uncommon. The majority of our teachers want to do the best they can for kids. Our responsibility as school leaders is to see to it that teachers have the resources needed and the professional knowledge and skills necessary to be successful in their work. When teachers are doing their best work, classrooms become joyful places where the paths of children’s lives are changed in profound and positive ways, impacting families, communities, and our nation for years to come.
Written for the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators Newsletter for August, 2013