8 Things I've Learned While Teaching
Tuesday I held my last music class that I will teach for a while. Yesterday my school closed. It's been a great run! I really never imagined myself in front of a classroom. Classroom teaching just always seemed so impersonal to me, so dull. (I don't know why I thought this. I have had some INCREDIBLE teachers in my life.) I was proven wrong on so many occasions! So here are some things I've learned while teaching:
1. Classroom teaching can be crazy fun and still be productive.
More than anything, I was really uncomfortable with the idea of being Mr. Weaver. I have always been "Michael"... or "Michael Weaver"... or "Michael J. Weaver"... or "Mikey" or "Mike" or "Meekle" or "Miguel" or "Me-ka-el", depending on the crowd... But "Mr. Weaver" just seemed sooo straitlaced to me. I never imagined that my "brand" of interaction with kids would be welcome in a classroom, let alone encouraged. And I really always figured that If I was myself then nothing would ever get done. I was wrong on both accounts.
The variable here, obviously, is the kids. I didn't take into consideration their desire to learn. Their desire to be valued. Their desire to do well. I would tell them "We're learning all of these things because we're getting ready for a concert," and they would perk up, ready to do what they needed to do so that they could show off their skills for whatever audience was going to be there. At our Easter Chapel, we had singers, boomwhackers, handchimes, choreography (that they would make up and I would accept or send them back to try again), recorders, and preschoolers (yes, they are their own instrument). It seems like a lot written down, but every kid put everything they could into making sure things would be perfect. And it wasn't perfect. But it was MUSIC.
And, as it turned out, I was never "Mr. Weaver". I was always "Mr. Weaver!!". It's amazing how a little bit of punctuation can make all the difference in the world.
2. Your effectiveness does not rely on you having the right tools.
When I started at Bethel Prep, I gathered all of my fun musical toys together and started making lesson plans based around all these things. And then I would come to school with 2 milk crates and a bucket of boomwhackers ready to teach. And it was SO much fun!
But one day I forgot my toys. And we had to do music class without the gimmicks. And all I had was an out of tune piano with several broken keys... And it was SO much fun!
In fact, I have had three pianos to use over the last two years, and not a single one was in great condition... and yet music was still made! We got to giggle when the C4 continued to sustain through our EbM chord at the end of our song. (One time I just didn't play this note so close to the end and the A/C kicked on just as we were ending and the drone of the fan was playing, you guessed it, a C4... we couldn't win!)
But really, some of the greatest memories I have and that I expect the kids will have is of boomwhackers that bent, mallets that shattered, piano stools that crumbled under me and glockenspiels that disappeared out of the music closet on "write and play your own song on the glockenspiel" day.
I have always told people that what I like to do for fun is to "write, play and listen to music in as many different ways as I can with whatever I have near me." I hope that my students have learned to do the same with the world around them. If they can, it means I can now add "teach" to that list.
3. Managing a classroom is a whole lot different from managing a group of kids, no matter the size.
There are certain things that are important to classroom management that I had to learn the hard way. I was pretty sure I could keep the attention of any group of kids for any amount of time if I needed to... and that's still true... but keeping attention and teaching are two very different things.
When you're teaching, it's not just about keeping young people occupied... it's keeping them occupied, with deliberate purpose. I can't just use your time for games (you'd be pretty impressed by how long I can play "put your hands on your head" with a group of 3rd-4th graders) you have to also be productive with your time... and that's a little tougher.
You leave just a bit of silence, they will fill it... usually with something so incredibly unrelated that it has the potential to steer you into a five-minute tangent about who in the class got to pet a cat this week before you finally steer the group back to the lesson of the day.
You let too many kids go to the bathroom and get a drink, all of a sudden music class becomes bathroom-drink class, which severely reduces the might of your 12-member-as-it-is-1st-grade-choir.
You ignore two boys kinda tapping each other in the back row for a little too long, all of a sudden they're up and wrestling through the unfortunate kid sitting between them.
Now every class had a little bit of zaniness... it wouldn't be a "Mr. Weaver!!" class without it. But I really have felt the last few months that I was right on the verge of taking my "zany" class and making it "zany but we also learned something".
4. Never teach tired.
It's not necessarily a bad thing, some of the best classes I taught were when I was tired. But fatigue severely reduces your effectiveness with class management... see above.
5. Middle Schoolers and High Schoolers can be made to participate in anything as long as you don't give them a choice.
And they can sing pretty well, emcee shows, play a mean hand-chime, become finger-cymbals virtuosos, and write some pretty epic aleatoric music. They will fight you on much of that... but when they know they can't opt out, the things they come up with are better than anything you could ever imagine. (of course, I already knew this one from working with Youth Groups...)
6. There is absolutely no better incentive than a Dunkin Munchkin party.
I don't think I need to say any more about this.
7. If you spy on the other teachers, you can figure out all their tricks. And then you combine all of their tricks together to become SUPER TEACHER.
Or you can walk by and make faces at the students. (which trains the other teachers to have better classroom management skills)
Or you can mime "shh, listen to your teacher!" (which only mostly works)
Or you can come join the class and be offered baked goods because it was someone's birthday, or watch a movie with them, or beat them in some rebus puzzles, or notice the Schoolmaster's iPad sitting on your desk and make this his background:
More than anything, as much as I didn't want to be a teacher, I didn't think I would get along well with other teachers either. And I was wrong. Teachers are pretty much the coolest, and I had some amazing people to look up to (and hang with, and pray with, and talk with, and mess with) these past few years!
8. I am not a gym teacher.
Although I sure did try. I taught gym a few times, I was a soccer coach for a while, I even helped out on Field Day. But leading students in a game is VERY different from leading kids in a choir. For one, in a game, they're allowed to make their own decisions. (remember? kids? variables?) I can teach kids. I can lead Youth in a game. I'd probably do medium okay teaching gym to high schoolers. But I am not gifted in the "Elementary Gym Teacher" area... And that's okay. Cause the soccer club was a little disorganized... but you should have heard the choirs... :-)
I am so thankful for the time I've gotten to spend with these kids. I hope in a year they still remember some of the things we did in class (or even my name!), and I hope as everyone goes off into a hundred different directions, we all continue to find ways to make music with other people.
Go, and do likewise.